How to spend €150 billion to build a stronger digital Europe

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Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, Director-General of DIGITALEUROPE./ ©DIGITALEUROPE, 2020.

This article is part of our special report Imagining Europe’s Digital Recovery: Options for Investment.

If there is any – tragic – merit in the hard lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, it is that the pandemic has forced us to face the most pressing issues of our society, and to finally take action.

Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl is the Director-General of DIGITALEUROPE.

Access to health diagnoses and treatment, access to education, access to democratic participation – the inequalities underlying these fundamental rights have become very visible in the recent months. We have realised in the hardest of ways our shortcomings in ensuring these rights are guaranteed even in times of crisis.

Digital technologies have not only proved themselves to be essential in helping bridge this gap but also – more broadly – in keeping our whole society and economy functioning. 

As we retreated back into our homes and away from offices, schools, restaurants and large gatherings, digital solutions kept us in touch with what mattered. Many citizens, businesses and public sector institutions have made a huge ‘digital leap’ in the last few months. 

However, the crisis has also exposed the fact that there remain huge gaps in our digital infrastructure. For example, 40 per cent of Europeans in rural areas still do not have access to fast broadband. Meanwhile 42 per cent of citizens lack basic digital skills – things like using video conferencing software or emails. This meant isolation and unemployment for many during lockdowns.

In Brussels, this message has been heard loud and clear, and I’m proud that the EU has demonstrated exceptional leadership. In the COVID recovery package, first President Ursula von der Leyen and then the leaders of the EU Member States agreed that 20 per cent of the new €750 billion stimulus funds should be spent on digital. That is roughly €150 billion. This is something DIGITALEUROPE had been calling for since June. 

This was a fantastic statement of intent by EU leaders to make sure that the post-COVID economy is innovative, competitive, green and resilient. In other words, the crisis is a good opportunity to reinvent ourselves, not just rebuild what we had before.

However, the attention now turns to the Member States, who are putting together their national spending plans. 

This is a crucial moment. The investment decisions of today will shape Europe for the next five years, and speed is of essence. For example, before the crisis we knew that 52 per cent of the workforce needed to be reskilled over the next five years due to digitalisation. Now it looks like this must happen in the next 12 months, as millions have been made unemployed or have been placed on government furlough schemes.

The question is not if we should spend money on digital, but how.

At DIGITALEUROPE we know a thing or two about digital investments. On 21 October we published How to spend it: A digital investment plan for Europe, containing the know-how of our national associations and companies from across our continent as well as ten pan-European investment ideas. We also set a number of KPIs that European governments can use to measure their success by 2025.

One such idea is a mass retraining programme for schoolteachers across our continent. Currently, less than 40 per cent of them feel ready to use digital technologies. We believe that by 2025 that figure should rise to 80 per cent. We must empower our teachers, not only to carry on their work during lockdowns, but also to inspire their students in integrating technology in their everyday life and become innovators themselves. 

Another priority area is healthcare. Remote medicine was essential during the crisis, freeing up valuable beds for COVID-19 patients. By 2025 we believe that 60 per cent of citizens should be able to access health and care services provided online. To get there we need significant investments in secure connectivity, software and ICT services to digitalise our hospitals. 

For our smaller companies, we need to invest in access to data to ensure they can grow to be the next unicorns (billion-dollar scale-ups). This is a regulatory issue, but it also requires investment to help them access the vast amounts of public data that could be available. Although access to public data is not a new concept, we have only scratched the surface so far – there is huge potential for growth and to create new high-value jobs. 

To support these ten priorities, we have hand-picked over 30 examples of successful digital projects already in place. That includes everything from smart cities in Ireland and industry retraining programmes in Germany to 5G wireless access in Estonia and digital healthcare in Austria.

Luckily, some governments are already showing what can be done. Earlier this month, the Spanish government and Minister of Finance Nadia Calviño published their investment plan – the most forward-looking so far. One-third of their €72 billion recovery fund will go towards projects like boosting 5G coverage to 70 per cent of the population, giving all citizens high-speed broadband connections, and training 20,000 new cybersecurity experts.

This is exactly the level of ambition we need to see from countries across Europe if we are to emerge from the crisis stronger and more resilient than before. As our investment plan shows, the digital solutions are there and we know they work. Thanks to European leaders, the funds are also in place. Now, all we need is for EU governments to step up and commit to making the digital investments that will drive our continent forward.

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