Commission sets sights on digital-savvy citizens 

This article is part of our special report Digital in a post-crisis world.

The European Commission has reiterated the importance of up-skilling adults and young people across the bloc, in order to make European workers more agile in the post-coronavirus digital economy.

Speaking as part of an event hosted by Digital Europe on Thursday (May 28), Anthony Whelan, digital advisor to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, noted how the executive’s revamped Multi-annual Financial Framework could be leveraged to ensure that Europe is able to bridge the digital skills gap.

The intention with Wednesday’s new seven-year budget, Whelan said, was to “reverse the cuts in the draft MFF that were being discussed in February, to which we then added a whole range of draft budgetary instruments, one of which is advanced skills.”

Indeed, the EU’s Digital Europe Programme is set to be in for a funding allocation of €8.2 billion as part of the new budget, an increase of€1.5 billion after the European Council had marked it down in February.

As part of a communication published by the Commission earlier this week on announcement of the new budget proposal, the importance of ramping up the bloc’s digital skills was made clear. 

“As Europe sets off on its path to recovery towards a greener, digital and more resilient economy and society, the need to improve and adapt skills, knowledge and competences becomes all the more important,” the communication said.

“The crisis has also shown the importance of digital skills, for children, students, teachers, trainers and all of us to communicate and work.”

Whelan added on Thursday that the increase in funds, should they be approved, could be made use of as part of future priorities in this field, to be clarified by the executive later in the year. 

In this vein, he made reference to the adjusted 2020 working timetable – including plans to present an update on the Digital Education Action Plan in the autumn, as well as an updated skills agenda in Q3.

“The whole idea is to learn from the crisis how we can improve our approach to the development of various digital skills,” Whelan said, adding that efforts in the field will be proceeded by a public consultation on the plans due to be opened up soon.

He also noted how the ‘biggest bazooka’ in terms of the bloc’s new funding plans, would be the recovery fund itself  – composed of €750 billion mostly in grants. While member states have most of the say in how the new outlay will be spent, Whelan said the executive recognises ‘connectivity’ and ‘skills’ as potential ‘major winners.’

Connectivity

On the subject of connectivity, meanwhile, Marc Vancoppenolle, global head of government relations at Nokia, highlighted how networked technology has proved itself to be particularly important amid the coronavirus outbreak in Europe.

“This pandemic has shown that connectivity is crucial,” he said. “The network traffic for our customers has gone up by 70%.”

Vancoppenolle added however that gaps remain in Europe’s patchy broadband coverage, and that the timetabling of spectrum frequency auctions for 5G has taken a hit.

Spain, Austria, Portugal, and the Czech Republic are just some of the countries that have pushed back their auctions for spectrum frequencies, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Current EU goals in the field of next-generation telecommunications include a launch of 5G services in all EU member states by the end of 2020 at the latest, as well as a ‘rapid build-up’ that will ensure “uninterrupted 5G coverage in urban areas and along main transport paths by 2025,” as outlined in the 2016 5G Action Plan for Europe.

“Other countries are not standing still. Look at South Korea and the US – everyone is moving forward,” Vancoppenolle noted.

Manufacturing

Meanwhile, for Digital Europe – the trade association that counts giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, Huawei and Microsoft as members – there is a renewed interest in ensuring that the bloc’s manufacturing sector receives boost from key enabling technologies.

“It’s vital that Europe ensures it stays at the forefront of digital manufacturing,” Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director general of Digital Europe, said on Thursday, adding that advanced digital tools could help the sector minimise resource usage and improve the energy efficiency of manufacturing operations.

Along this axis, Bonefeld-Dahl cited the trade association’s Digital Manufacturing Executive Council (DMEC), which represents executives from top manufacturers and technology firms, as playing a key role in contributing towards Europe’s future goals in the development of next-generation technology.

For his part, the Commission’s Whelan noted how the new ‘strategic investment facility’ – part of the InvestEU programme overseen by the European Investment Bank, could play a key role here. The instrument is designed to open the doors on €150 billion in investment for the digital transition and green priorities, by using €15 billion in guarantees.

And the twin poles of digital and green go hand in hand in the future political priorities of the Union, Whelan noted, with attention afforded to investments in key technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, robotics, semiconductors and high-performance computing.

Such tools, he added, could provide a means to achieve Europe’s broader sustainable objectives, ensuring the bloc’s resilience in the face of future crises and in pursuance of the goal of technological sovereignty.

“We need to need to improve our domestic capacities,” he said. “Not as part of a raising of walls, but as part of an intelligent diversification of supplies, in parallel with our capacity to face future crises.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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