Ministers to chart Europe’s digital future with post-COVID19 commitments 

On Tuesday (9 June), EU member states are set to sign off on a series of broad commitments to transform the bloc’s digital agenda, in the aftermath of Europe’s battle with the coronavirus that has once again highlighted the vital importance of digital technology.

As part of the commitments outlined in the final version of a text seen by EURACTIV, entitled Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, nations on the bloc will back plans to accelerate the digital transformation as an “essential component of the EU’s response to the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The text, which has gone through a series of iterations, was discussed by EU Telecoms Ministers on Friday (5 June).

The aim is to adopt it by written procedure on Tuesday, when member states will formally call on the EU to analyse the experiences gained from the coronavirus pandemic, “in order to draw conclusions for the future that will inform the implementation of current and future Union policies in the digital domain.”

Revisions have been made to the text throughout Europe’s quarantine period, during which time the increased reliance on technology has brought to light the importance of developing several key initiatives in the digital world.

Those include the broader availability of online public services, the creation of a common EU digital identity, the digital transformation of health and care, the up-skilling and re-skilling of EU citizens in digital capacities, and deploying high-capacity connectivity across rural areas.

Make the gains ‘permanent’

“A major share of the economy and society has shifted to digital during the pandemic,” Oleg Butković, Croatian Minister for the Sea, Transport and Infrastructure, said on Friday following the meeting between EU telecoms ministers chaired by Croatia.

“We agreed today that we should not let this opportunity pass but make these gains permanent through increased efforts on the digitalisation of businesses and public services as well as the security and capacity of our networks,” he said.

Ministers also highlighted the “necessity of further investment, especially in order to overcome the digital gap that still exists, which can have a limiting effect on access to e-health and long-distance learning and working.”

On the last point, recent figures published by Eurostat revealed that in 2019, approximately  5.4% of employed persons in the EU, aged 15-64, usually worked from home.

This percentage is almost certain to increase in the long-term future, according to Eurofound, the EU agency for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, who say that due to the changes imposed on working customs as a result of the pandemic, “it is likely that rates of telework in Europe, and as a result employer/employee relationships, will be changed permanently.”

Leave no-one behind

However, in order for such predictions to become a reality, Europe should take note of the areas across the bloc which were exposed for a lack of digital infrastructure during the coronavirus outbreak, believes S&D MEP Brando Benifei.

“I believe that these months of lockdown will play out as an accelerator to the transition to a more digital European economy,” Benifei told EURACTIV.

“Nevertheless, we are witnessing first-hand how the lack of digital infrastructures excludes many European citizens from accessing services, education and job opportunities, deepening the social and economic inequalities that already existed.”

“This highlights the need to rebuild an economy that is not only made future-proof with a consistent digitalisation but that also doesn’t leave anyone behind in the process.”

For Benifei, the up-skilling of EU citizens in the fundamentals of digital literacy also serves a public purpose in extending the access to key services across communities more broadly.

“Nowadays a minimum level of digital literacy is becoming essential to function as an active member of our societies,” he said.

Moreover, the mobility of workers in the EU’s single market requires more and more dependence on such digital skills, Benefei believes, the EU’s digital transition across many different sectors having a sweeping impact on the future skills required in the workplace.

“We should therefore focus to re-skill workers in the economic sectors that will mostly suffer from the incoming technological changes so that they will be able to shift towards the expanding digital sectors,” he said.

Recovery and Resilience

On this point, member states will adopt an unambiguous stance on Tuesday, calling on the EU to “put in place all the necessary measures to re-skill and up-skill the workforce for the digital age, diversify the workforce and attract highly skilled ICT and technology specialists, including Europeans who have migrated, while also adapting digital workplaces for workers and providing reliable and fast internet connections to schools in order to promote the use of digital educational resources.”

Along this axis, the Commission plans to present a revised Digital Education Action Plan in the autumn and updated skills agenda in Q3, which could well benefit from the Commission’s recently revised long-term budget, as well as a recovery package designed to ensure Europe’s stable emergence from the economic setback imposed by the coronavirus crisis.

Indeed, Digital Europe, the EU’s funding framework for digital capacity building, is set to be in for an outlay of €8.2 billion as part of the new budget proposal, an increase of €1.5 billion after the European Council had marked it down in February.

During a recent online event with Brussels legislators, Anthony Whelan, the digital adviser to President Ursula von der Leyen, noted that the intention behind this increase in resources 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.”

“The whole idea is to learn from the crisis how we can improve our approach to the development of various digital skills,” Whelan added, noting also that the €750 billion recovery fund put forward by the Commission could also go towards areas including connectivity and up-skilling, although this will ultimately be determined by member states themselves.

If the conclusions to be adopted by EU member states are anything to go by, Europe’s digital infrastructure over the next few years will be in for a far-reaching transformation, in parallel with a series of political commitments concerning the digitisation of public services and health care, the up-skilling of citizens, and bridging Europe’s connectivity divides.

In this regard, the digital policy agenda of the EU has no doubt been bolstered as a result of the public health crisis.

In its wake, it leaves a new benchmark for the future growth and acceleration of key technologies that have become so useful to those who have had access to them, while also exposing the nations who have not had the means to employ these tools of resilience.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, the Commission’s Vice-President for Digital, Margarethe Vestager, noted how the crisis has given the bloc new digital standards to aim for in the future.

“Amid this crisis, we have had a full-scale crash test of everything digital,” she said. “Digital learning, digital working, digital socialising, everything, and obviously e-commerce has increased substantially.”

“Now we have a new baseline. Now, let’s make the most of that. Because now we all know much more about how different tools work.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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