Opinion leaders seek ‘big idea’ for EU

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Sizeable personalities in European business, administration and public life, including EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding, met on Friday (9 October) in Brussels in an attempt to search for a ‘big idea’ for Europe. Reding made the case for placing “digital Europe” at the top of the new European Commission’s agenda.

The commissioner argued that if broadband penetration in the EU were increased by 10%, it would trigger GDP growth of 1.35%. She said she had been inspired by Jacques Delors, who was a master at putting forward a slogan and then developing the policy. 

The slogan, she said, is ‘digital Europe’, adding that she has clear plans for the five years ahead. However, Reding deplored that of the billion euros recently allocated for the deployment of broadband Internet connections in rural areas (EURACTIV 29/01/09), a very small fraction had been used to build the network. The reason for this, she explained, is that it is up to the 27 agriculture ministers to follow up on implementation. 

Giles Merrit, secretary-general of the think-tank Friends of Europe, which organised the event, challenged the audience by saying that in his five years of office Commission President José Manuel Barroso had not championed a “big idea”. 

Mark MacGann from Weber Shadwick disagreed, saying that Barroso’s big idea was to realise that the EU is also a community of consumers. This intervention had in fact helped highlight Reding’s best achievement, bringing down the cost of mobile communications across borders, he said. 

Kirsty Hugues from Oxfam argued that ‘digital Europe’ could be a means but not a goal for Europe. She insisted that the EU’s priority should be working for a sustainable Europe and a sustainable planet. 

Reding reacted by saying that she does not like the term “sustainability” because it is “not very sexy”. “Find another word,” she urged. 

Reding also warned of a looming conflict of generations, as in her words “digital natives” are going to take over the world in 10 years’ time and other generations will be alienated. 

Jan Muehlfeit, chairman of Microsoft Europe, reacted by saying that to avoid such conflict the younger generation should be present at such discussions. 

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