EU ‘punching well below its weight’ in digital technologies, von der Leyen warns

The EU continues to lag behind in terms of investment into key technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing when compared to players from the US and China, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is hoping for increased investment in key technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Making Europe fit for the digital age.

The EU continues to lag behind China and the US when it comes to investments into key technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned.

Speaking at the annual conference of trade group Digital Europe, von der Leyen noted how the bloc is still underperforming in key areas, saying the EU executive aims to help bridge the funding vacuum.

“Europe is still punching well below its weight. I believe this is because of two main reasons. The first one obvious, a lack of investment,” she said on Thursday (4 February).

While European companies invest massively in research and development in sectors such as automotive or pharma, “our investment in other fields still lags behind the US and China,” she said.

“Artificial intelligence and quantum computing are two good examples,” she added, noting that due to this, far too many European startups in the tech world have had to leave the continent in order to scale up.

To bridge the gap, von der Leyen cited plans to dedicate 20% of the bloc’s recovery fund to digital projects, a figure amounting to approximately €150 billion.

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Commission President von der Leyen has laid out her vision for the development of digital policy in the EU, with an accelerated commitment to innovation in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

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She praised public-private partnerships as a means to generate investment, highlighting the Commission’s proposal last year to create a new European Investment Fund for artificial intelligence and blockchain.

The EU executive is currently in talks with the European Investment Bank on the project, which has already generated €700 million in investment, the Commission president said, hoping the figure could go as high as €3 billion as the project gathers momentum this year.

“For a small digital business or a deep tech startup, this can make a world of difference. As resources for ‘Next Generation EU‘ start to flow into our economies, it’s now time to join forces between the public and the private sector,” she said in reference to the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund.

‘Alarming lack of transparency’

Digital Europe, for its part, said there were more pressing issues at play with regards to the bloc’s future spending plans in the digital arena.

Research conducted by the trade lobby and publicised during this week’s event showed that no draft spending plans have been released publicly and the ones that have been made public “vary widely in terms of structure, scope, and format,” despite general convergence on the 20% spending target for digital.

“The pan-European recovery and resilience fund is the first of its kind and member states should set a good example, seeking the views and expertise of all interested stakeholders, not least industry,” said Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director general of Digital Europe.

“It is difficult to do this without a text to look at and open dialogue. Digital transformation depends on collaboration between the public and private sector, it is a common challenge and we must have a common vision of a stronger digital Europe,” she said in a statement, noting however that there had been particularly positive developments in Spain and Portugal in terms of their spending commitments in the digital arena.

Von der Leyen opens the doors for an EU data revolution

The EU is set to exploit the “untapped potential” of vast troves of industrial and sectoral data, allowing public and private actors “easy access” to huge reserves of information, the European Commission announced on Wednesday (19 February).

Digital Sovereignty

Elsewhere, other EU leaders were keen to highlight the ways in which Europe could chart its future competitiveness in the digital economy.

European Council President Charles Michel, opening the event on Wednesday, stressed that there would be no so-called “strategic autonomy” for Europe, without a concerted effort to fostering digital sovereignty.

The term ‘digital sovereignty’ is widely in EU policy circles and refers to the bloc’s ability to obtain a sense of independence from third-country providers of key technologies.

As a means to achieve this, Michel cited the bloc’s objectives in the data space, as a means of fostering innovation and growth.

“The world is on the brink of the next stage of the fourth industrial revolution. Europe has enormous potential in the fields of data, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Our industrial data, for instance, represents a massive resource,” he said.

But the EU would not necessarily seek to adopt a protectionist approach in its bid to acquire a sense of digital sovereignty, Michel said. With a new US president at the helm in Washington, he expressed hopes for closer collaboration in digital affairs on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We have a fresh opportunity to forge a joint EU-US tech agenda. A consensus is emerging – on both sides of the Atlantic – that online platforms and Big Tech have the potential to threaten our common democratic values,” he said.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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