Sofia conference highlights internet’s role in fighting depopulation

Vice President Dubravka Suica was the keynote speaker at the conference. [Twitter account of VP Dubravka Suica]

A good internet connection is more important than motorways and can make depopulated places in Europe more attractive to young people, said participants at a webinar organised by EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Dubravka Šuica, the European Commission’s vice-president for democracy and demography, was the keynote speaker at the conference “Connectivity and Social Progress” held in Sofia on Thursday (9 September).

Bulgaria has a declining demography. On current trends, projections show that the working age population will decrease 7% by 2030, the commissioner said.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a gap in terms of internet access, she added, noting that not all schools in Bulgaria were ready to go online. “There are many communities without internet access and digital skills,” she remarked.

In her view, rural areas urgently need better access to the internet.

“There must be infrastructure next to every village, every island, every mountain,” Šuica said. And this is about broadband, not just roads, she added.

“Broadband is something we can’t do without,” Šuica stressed, adding that efforts should be made to educate the older population. “We need to make rural life attractive, and part of this effort is to provide job opportunities,” the Commission vice-president said.

Her words resonated well with the Bulgarian audience. Since he came to power, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who is under pressure to resign, has made the construction of motorways a national priority. But his critics have repeatedly said that motorways offer no guarantee of social progress.

The elephant in the room

Journalists wanted to ask Šuica questions about the Commission’s position with regard to the political situation in Bulgaria, but the vice-president declined to discuss domestic politics at the webinar.

Instead, she focused on the country’s remaining challenges when it comes to connectivity. The recently published 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), reveals that Bulgaria ranks last among the EU’s 27 countries in terms of digital competitiveness.

And the country is also lagging behind on e-government services, she remarked. Many people in Bulgaria consider that the lack of e-government harbors corruption: instead of downloading the needed  administrative documents online, citizens queue and often pay bribes to obtain them.

Bulgaria’s labour minister Denitsa Sacheva acknowledged that digital skills in the country were too low. During the pandemic, only 6% of administrative applications were submitted online, she pointed out, even though the forms were digitally available. According to her, this is explained by a lack of equipment and knowledge, distrust in electronic signatures, or fears that online applications will not be processed.

In the next 30 years, the population of Bulgaria is expected to fall by 22.5%. However, according to Eurostat, life expectancy will increase, Sacheva remarked. Bulgaria is also the EU country with the longest maternity leave, she continued, adding the government had taken measures during the pandemic to assist families as well as businesses.

Thanks to the measures, many people have kept their jobs and the unemployment rate was kept at only 7.9%, she stressed. Without the so-called “60 to 40” salary support, the share of unemployed people would have risen to 14%, the minister said, defending the measures adopted by her government.

When it comes to digital literacy, many vulnerable children were given computers and tablets to study remotely, she said, adding that the government would continue to invest in digital skills.

Sacheva also mentioned the special program aimed at Bulgariasn from abroad returning to the country, which includes reimbursement of house rent, Bulgarian language training and reimbursement of expenses for babysitters.

“We learned from the pandemic that we need to invest in digital technologies and training, “Sacheva said.

In a video address, MEP Corina Crețu (S&D, Romania), a former EU Commissioner in charge of regional policy, said innovation and internet technologies become truly useful and have a significant impact on people’s lives only when social aspects are addressed.

In her view, there are two paramount aspects: that technology reaches as many people as possible, and that people age given the necessary skills to use it to its full potential.

MEP Christian Guinea  (Renew, Romania), who chairs the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Policy, pointed out that pouring money in rural areas was not sufficient to address depopulation. What will keep people there is public services, he argued.

He mentioned a European telemedicine project, which could have been a solution for rural areas struggling with access to medical services. The project was a initially a failure but started working this year, during the pandemic, he said, explaining that some mayors  had organised themselves and put pressure on the government.

In his words, bureaucracy in a country like Romania is an obstacle to such projects, meaning EU money often goes unspent. The MEP advised the Commission to be much more proactive with national authorities.

Ivailo Kalfin, a Former Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria, gave the example of Älmhult, a Swedish city with a population of 9,000, where Ikea is based, as an example that successful business is not necessarily based in big cities.

“Big international business can be managed and developed by a region that is not central,” Kalfin said. He described how, while he was a minister, a large investor wanted to put money into an area with high unemployment. “One of the things they required was an internet connection. No matter how many highways there are, without the Internet there will be no interest from business”, Kalfin said.

Abraham Liu, Huawei’s chief representative to the EU institutions, said he was born in a small village and only had access to electricity when he was 11 years old.

“We are just at the beginning of the opportunities that these technologies can provide. “Huawei wants to help Europe bridge the digital divide.” According to him, Romania’s GDP could fall by 8 billion by 2023, if 5G networks are not built.

5G is a great opportunity for rural areas, Liu said, but building infrastructure is also very expensive. This is why Huawei has been working to reduce the average cost of connecting a household from €8,000 to €2,000, he said.

As to the potential health hazard from 5G networks, Liu stressed that emissions are lower than home routers. “In time, people will discover the many new opportunities that 5G will bring to society,” he said.

Michael Green, CEO of Social Progress Imperative (SPI), a US-based non-profit, explained that economic progress was not everything, and that social side must also be measured. According to him, migration is related to differences in social progress, not so much to differences in income.

A good example of curbing demographic change by introducing high-speed internet was highlighted by Adrian Begley from the Irish island of Arranmore.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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