Europe needs a new digital deal

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

Connected devices like smart metres and thermostats can help to cut energy use. [Ruslan Ivantsov/Shutterstock]

Forget Trump and Brexit for a moment. Europe’s next big challenge is the coming digital revolution and how to harness it. Nobody will be left untouched by the consequences of our digital policies, writes Bjarke Møller.

Bjarke Møller is the director of Think Tank EUROPA.

The really big change is coming: Europe will experience a digital revolution the next decades, and no citizen, company or decision-maker will be left untouched by the consequences. But if the EU does not react to the digital tide, it ultimately faces a future as a historical museum in a digitised world.

It is often overlooked, but the Digital Single Market is really one of the most important strategic decisions on Europe’s agenda today. And even more so in the light of the new protectionism that Donald Trump is about to launch as the next US president. Europe must set a different agenda and promote growth through open and liberal trade policies. We have to understand the bigger picture, which is really about digital disruptions transforming the political and economic landscape in a profound way.

Digital disruptions can potentially force millions of workers out of their jobs, become a driver of popular protests and feeding into a growing wave of Euroscepticism. But the EU and its member states should not resort to short-sighted protectionism and digital nationalism as an answer to these challenges. We must not return to an Old Deal policy with protectionism and investments in coal, shale gas and other fossil fuels, like Trump.

Instead of moving back to the black thirties, Europe needs a New Digital Deal with massive investments in the next generation of technologies and infrastructures enabling businesses to take a huge leap forward in productivity while minimising our dependency on energy and other resources. Instead of protectionism we should focus on creating a new productivity revolution to the benefit of businesses and citizens.

The Digital Single Market can deliver on that if we don´t lower our expectations but set an even more ambitious agenda.

However, it is crucial that digitisation is not seen as an end in itself or a quick fix. Rather, it is a tool that EU member states can use to find cost effective and intelligent solutions to the biggest societal challenges they will face in the coming years: demographics, health, environment and logistics.

Digitisation must be thought of as a crucial enabler in speeding up the transformation of Europe into a green circular economy with higher resource productivity and lower energy consumption. Robotics and automation also offer new solutions to societal challenges ranging from ageing populations and healthcare, to smart transport, security, energy and the environment.

Technologies should be used to the benefit of society and economic progress in Europe. Although digitisation will reshape the labour market and threaten some labour-intensive jobs, it will also create new job opportunities in other sectors. As robots could help Europeans augment their capacities to solve some of society’s biggest challenges, they should not be seen as competitors, but as partners.

The EU must create a level playing field and politicians in member states should ensure that workers get the right education and learn new skills to succeed in this digital transformation.

It is vital that Europe creates a digital legislative framework empowering citizens and corporations to find new solutions. All legislation should be digital by default and must not impose unnecessary barriers to digitisation. Common European standards should help facilitate open interoperability protocols for data and communication between objects in the IoT.

Better and clearer rules on data protection can help foster more trust among citizens, and this is where the EU should explore innovative ways in which the use of data can be encouraged rather than limited, whilst respecting peoples’ right to privacy.

Huge investments in upgrading Europe’s digital infrastructure, both in fixed and mobile networks, are also urgent. The industrial age brought more efficient ways of transporting goods via railways and highways, but in the digital age the EU countries need giga speed fibre networks and 5G mobile networks to accelerate the development of digital services.

Driverless cars and the billions of new communicating sensors within the Internet of Things depend on world-class infrastructure. They will not work without 5G being available throughout Europe and connected to a strong fibre-optic backbone network. The EU must work together to ensure a forward-looking regulation on telecommunications and provide a European spectrum auction that lowers telecommunication companies’ costs and gives them access to a trans-European market.

The EU member states and the European Commission must facilitate investments in a new giga speed infrastructure, both fixed and mobile, so their citizens will have access to an internet with sufficient speed and bandwidth and avoid data congestions that would be detrimental to productivity, growth and innovation.

European transport and logistics systems will benefit from the coming automation of transport, which will increase productivity along the whole value chain – from factories and warehouses to the end consumers. Europe should therefore become a frontrunner in the automation of transport.

Better and smarter collection of Big Data can help European citizens in their daily lives, but should also be seen as a helpful resource for innovation in both the private and public sectors.

Digitisation can also allow more efficient use of natural resources, particularly energy. Smart meters connected to the energy smart grid will enable consumers to control their consumption in a more transparent single market for energy. Digitisation is an important tool to speed up the transformation into a circular economy.

The DSM project is an important step forward, but we need much more political and economic leadership to realise the full potentials of the digitisation of Europe. Without a truly Digital Single Market Europe risks dismal growth.

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