Cause for EU optimism on the digital front

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Matt Brittin

Matt Brittin, President, EMEA Business and Operations, Google ["Matt Brittin (7125480825)" by Jarle Naustvik. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The widespread gloom and doom about Europe’s ability to compete in the digital economy is misplaced, writes Matt Brittin.

Matt Brittin is Google’s President for Business and Operations in Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA)

Last month I got an email from a proud daughter in the UK whose mother Tricia Cusden launched a makeup business called Look Fabulous Forever. She built a huge following using YouTube to show older women makeup tips, and now exports products to 24 countries across the world.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of businesses across Europe that are using digital tools to build a brand, find customers and grow. Not long ago, small businesses could only afford to source and sell locally. Global marketing and distribution were out of reach for all but the biggest. Today, any business can reach a global market using the Internet, allowing even the smallest businesses to be a multinational.

So why do we hear so much pessimism about doing business in Europe? With all the challenges Europe’s economy faces, it’s tempting to think that everyone’s given up on the idea of European business success.

But this doom and gloom is misplaced – as long as we take the right steps now, Europe is well positioned for growth. The EU has a rich tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship – in fact, it’s the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods and services. We also have a bigger digital trade surplus than the US.

And, contrary to the prevailing view, there’s cause for optimism on the digital front too. Since 2000, for example, Europe’s had nearly two thirds as many digital startups reaching $1 billion valuations as the US. Two German businesses – Zalando, the fashion site, and Rocket Internet, the start-up incubator – both recently broke the one billion euro mark when they went public.

It’s not just tech start-ups that are doing well in the digital world: Europe’s millions of small businesses are going digital too. We’re seeing firsthand how businesses are using the Internet to grow. Traditional businesses like Holl Souvenir, a Dutch clog-maker supplying the tourism industry. Last year, they started an online marketing campaign and launched a new webstore. Now their business is never closed.

It’s clear that the opportunities for businesses in the digital age are immense–there are many more ways to reach customers than anyone could have imagined not that long ago.  But, for Europe to reach its full potential, we need to clear the way for companies online. We need a single market in the digital world that reflects the single market we enjoy in the physical world already. With over two dozen regulatory and frameworks to contend with, businesses stumble when they seek to sell, grow or hire across borders. The European Commission has rightly identified the digital single market as one of Europe’s top priorities.

Of course, the opportunities afforded by the digital economy are still limited if people don’t have the right skills. At current rates, the EU predicts a shortfall of 900,000 jobs by 2020 due to a lack of digital skills, and there are many businesses that want to get online but don’t know where to start.

At Google we’re playing our part. Over the last year we have have helped tens of thousands of German entrepreneurs export through partnerships with DHL, PayPal and Commerzbank. We have trained tens of thousands of young, unemployed people in Spain with free courses on subjects like web development, digital marketing, and ecommerce. And, we have shown thousands of traditional Italian craftspeople how to sell and market their wares online.

But we want to do more.  That’s why I’ve announced in Brussels that Google will train 1 million Europeans in crucial digital skills by 2016.  We will invest an additional €25M to broaden our current programs and take them to new markets across Europe to train more small businesses on the digital skills they so need. We’ll build a Europe-wide training hub to support businesses anywhere in Europe to get training online.

Some people look at the state of the economy in Europe and are pessimistic. We see something else: a huge diversity of businesses and entrepreneurs with creativity, ambition, and talent – all using digital tools to create jobs and boost the economy.

Subscribe to our newsletters