Michał Boni: If we want to avoid the disintegration of the EU, we need to merge national identities with a European identity
Michał Boni on why he is excited about the digital single market, 5G technology, robots, how social media can help democracy, and why he still loves reading paper books.
Michał Boni | Photo credit: Bea Uhart
Michał Boni is excited about the rewards future digital innovations can offer to the EU and Europeans.
We are discussing the potential of the fifth generation of wireless technology (5G), and according to the political veteran of 30 years, "5G not only offers a new generation of infrastructure and possibilities for mobile technology, it is a game changer.
"Not only will it mean we will have a new kind of infrastructure, where information can be sent and received in milliseconds, it is very important for establishing the Internet of Things, as we will have the possibility to send 'big packages' of information, important for data development."
A member of Parliament's civil liberties and constitutional affairs committees, when it comes to issues concerning digital innovation, Boni knows his stuff. Before being elected as an MEP in 2014, he was Poland's minister for administration and digitalisation, one of the first in central Europe.
His political career goes all the way back to the 1980s, when he was a member the Solidarność trade union, being involved in underground political activities against the Communist dictatorship.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, his first official political role was to be the Solidarność representative for Warsaw. In 1991 he was chosen to be labour minister and was involved in the transformation of his country in becoming a liberal market economy and towards joining the EU.
Boni himself is very active on social media, admitting he prefers using Twitter rather than Facebook. "I want to protect some elements of my private life. But on Twitter I share which book I am reading or what fi lm I enjoyed watching."
Boni believes 5G can radically change key aspects of our life, such as education. "It can lead to the creation of digital schools, using open source education computer programmes, which can be accessed by all kind of digital devices, with high quality transmission of data."
Another area is healthcare. "We could develop eHealth, which will create a new paradigm in healthcare, aimed more at prevention, with the the possibility to monitor health in 'real time', and more personalised healthcare."
But 5G technology will not be cheap. "It's clear we will need €500bn-€600bn to invest in 5G to make it work and ensure there is accessibility for all, including rural areas by 2025."
Though the EU will provide some funding, the majority of investment will have to come from the private sector. Therefore, notes Boni, the EU needs to incentivise investments.
This includes providing longer licences for 5G provision by companies, creating rules where licences are not simply given according to price, but also level of investment, and also allowing more public-private partnerships.
Boni believes the EU should start a discussion on creating digital citizenship for Europeans, "because this would make up for a lack of European identity, and show the redundancy of nationalism, as we have a number of populist, nationalist governments and political movements in various parts of the EU.
"If we want to avoid the disintegration of the EU, we need to merge national identities with a European identity. Therefore we need to consider what kind of European identity we need. It has to not only be related to our heritage, but also linked to a future vision of Europe, where we all share the advantages."
For Boni, participating in a democracy "is not just about voting in elections, it is something vivid, which should be supported by all of us citizens. We need to have some opportunities to participate in the decision making processes and to present our views."
This is where social media plays a positive role, "by helping create better communications to give people the information as to what their member states and parliaments are doing, and to give access to all information."
It also allows politicians and policymakers to "listen to the people and give them the possibility to present their views, and help moderate debates."
Therefore a European initiative on digital citizenship could help "make democracy stronger."
Though the 63 year old is without a doubt a policy expert on digital issues, he admits whenever he has problems with his devices, he still asks for help from his daughters.
"Younger generations are very familiar with the technology of the digital era. I am 63 and I am trying to understand and use these new technologies."
To help bridge the digital divide, Boni believes there should be an "exchange of views between generations. We should consider what kind of advantages all can share using digital devices and technologies.
"In Poland we created several social movements and activities, supported by EU funding, to prepare young people to be teachers to the older generations on how to use the internet. It was fantastic, very often elderly people are much more open to listening and being taught by people who are younger than from people of their generation, and I think this is very important."
Boni recognises there are also dark elements to the internet, in particular the growing problem of fake news and the creation of 'echo chambers'.
"We should all work together to find solutions to combatting these dangerous phenomena, but not using censorship, as the internet should remain open, this is its biggest value."
Key for achieving a digital single market is to allow the free flow of data across Europe. But he accepts there are obstacles in the form of legislative and administrative procedures.
"We need to overcome these barriers, but we also need to maintain security and privacy safeguards. It is important, when we talk about free flow of data, to talk about trust between all partners who participate in the data chain."
Boni is an enthusiastic supporter of robotic and artificial intelligence (AI), and when asked about possible job losses following the introduction of these innovations, he prefers using the term 'disruption', not 'job losses'.
"It is to our advantage to use robots and artificial intelligence in many processes including manufacturing, healthcare, and also in everyday life such as transportation. But we need to consider that in some areas people should cooperate and work with robots.
"We need to give workers a signal that we are starting the transition period and reassure them they are not alone, and will be given all the possibilities to adjust to the situation. I want this disruption carried out in a way which is controlled.
"We need to understand this is a completely new era and we need to adjust. Therefore we need a transition period which should be organised by member states, with support from the European Commission."
Hoping that the digital single market will be completed by mid- 2018, he accepts it needs hard work and "a more open position from member states."
There are many different elements that have yet to be completed, including decisions on spectrum allocation, achieving 5G, harmonising the general data protection regulation (GDPR) and privacy regulations, and concluding the debate on copyright and using big data.
Boni also believes there should be a new cyber security and strategy, though he understands that security is a competence of member states.
"When talking about cyber security, which is a cross-border threat, our response should be European in outlook. We need to find solutions between member states."
Another obstacle to providing eCommerce products is geo-blocking, an issue which Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip highlighted during the July Strasbourg plenary session. "Not only do we need a single market, but we will also need a digital single market. This means we need to implement the same harmonised solutions. I understand there are many problems related to eCommerce, harmonisation and avoiding geoblocking."
Stressing geo-blocking not only affects business, but also consumers, he says, "We need to overcome these barriers which are also related to the delivery of parcels, making it meet the requirements of our expectations."
Admitting there is a clear east-west digital divide between the more advance economic member states, he adds, "Some countries from central Europe and the Baltic region are developing very quickly.
"Estonia is one of the key leaders for digitalisation in Europe, I believe there are many new possibilities and what is important, is the spirit of entrepreneurship which is very strong. I think that in a short time we will catch up, and not lag behind. We as Europeans also need to understand why we are lagging behind in digital innovations and productivity compared to the US."
Though keen to push 21st century digital technologies, he still very much enjoys old-fashioned forms of entertainment, such as the cinema, live music and reading books. In his office he has photos of old films stars, including Marilyn Monroe, whom he is a big fan of, enjoying her films such as Some like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and River of No Return.
As for books, "at 63 I prefer to read books in paper form." However, he is quick to point out, "of course I have the same book collection in electronic form, which is very handy when I am travelling."
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