Commission mulls digitalisation of visa system to fill in skills gap

Digitalising the visa system was an aim originally established by the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, launched in 2020, with the deadline for having reached this goal was set at 2025. [Shutterstock / Martynova Anna]

This article is part of our special report The upcoming challenges of the telecom industry.

The EU’s Schengen visa system is set to be fully digitalised under a new European Commission proposal, part of a broader initiative to attract skills and talent to the EU. 

The proposal would see the EU’s visa application and payment processes shifted almost entirely online, a move the Commission says will streamline the process to reduce costs and increase security. 

The passport-free Schengen area covers 22 EU countries, plus Iceland, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and Norway.

Digitalising the visa system was an aim originally established by the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, launched in 2020, with the deadline to reach this goal by 2025.

The proposal is part of a broader package of migration measures which aims to attract talent to the EU, particularly in specific sectors such as ICT, science, engineering and others vital to the twin green and digital transitions.

Current visa procedures, the Commission says, are still paper-heavy and often require in-person presence at a consulate, an element that became more challenging during the pandemic. 

“Half of those coming to the EU with a Schengen visa consider the visa application burdensome, one-third have to travel long distances to ask for a visa”, said Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson. 

“It is high time that the EU provides a quick, safe and web-based EU visa application platform for the citizens of the 102 third countries that require short term visa travel to the EU.”

Under the proposal, announced on Wednesday (27 April), a new visa platform will be established through which applicants can apply and pay for visas to any Schengen country. For those wishing to travel to more than one country, the platform will automatically determine who is responsible for reviewing their visa application. 

The new process will replace the existing visa stickers, and in-person attendance at a consulate will only be required in select circumstances, such as for the collection of biometric data from first-time applicants. 

Streamlining and digitising the application process, the Commission argues, will help to tackle “visa-shopping”, whereby applicants register for visas in EU countries with faster processing times, rather than in the one they intend to go to.

This shift will also reduce security risks, the Commission says, as the existing visa stickers are more prone to falsification, fraud and theft than their digital counterparts. 

Digitalising public services more generally is one of the four key facets of the EU’s Digital Decade targets, central to which is the goal of making 100% of key public services fully available online by 2030. 

The Commission’s 2021 eGovernment benchmark, which compares levels of digitalisation of public services across EU countries, found that more than eight out of 10 government services are available online, with their transition to digital having been accelerated by the pandemic.

Data show mixed situations across EU states on digital transition

The European Commission has set a number of objectives for the digital transition of member states as part of the EU’s “2030 Digital Compass”, and the annual progress report, released on 12 November, showed mixed results across the bloc.

This finding was echoed by a white paper on the state of digital skills in the EU, released this week by EY, Huawei and AllDigital, which noted that there is an identifiable general trend towards the digitalisation of public services in Europe, primarily spurred by the constraints of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In all the case study countries covered by the paper, significant portions of the EU pandemic recovery funds they received have been dedicated to improving and evolving their digital infrastructures. The use of e-government services by the EU population overall is substantial, with an average of 57% of individuals having accessed them in 2020.

Deficiencies in digital infrastructure and skills, however, will be key barriers to facilitating this shift.

As of 2019, the paper notes, almost 15% of European households lacked access to fast broadband coverage, and very high capacity networks were available in less than half (44%) of households overall, and in just 20% of those in rural areas. 

Report: Digital Decade targets in jeopardy without scale-up of efforts

A substantial acceleration of digital development is needed if the EU’s Digital Decade targets are to be met, according to a new report that sheds light on the disparity between member states.

While the Commission noted in its digital visa proposal that shifting the system online will help to make it more secure, the paper’s authors cautioned that the more public services go online, the greater the opportunities for attacks by malicious actors.

Ensuring basic levels of digital skills here will also be key, the paper concludes. In a 2019 survey, the Commission found that the number of Europeans who felt confident when it came to protecting themselves online had decreased from 71% in 2017 to 59% two years later.

Accordingly, while the Digital Decade targets include the goal of ensuring that 80% of the EU’s population have basic digital skills by 2030, the paper notes that when it comes to ensuring diffuse online capabilities, it is important that cyber hygiene and security skills are included.

The EU also has a dearth of ICT professionals; the Commission has set the target of ensuring 20 million specialists in this area by 2030.

“We know that there is a large untapped potential among us, especially in the ICT sector,” said Tony Jin, Huawei Chief Representative to the EU Institutions, announcing a  €150 million investment in talent programs over the next five years.

This gap is similarly a focus of the new direction of migration policy announced by the Commission this week,  in its encouragement of people with these specialised skills to come to the EU, for instance through the launch of an EU Talent Pool to connect non-EU specialists with EU employees.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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