Five years ago, Eva Maydell was working with MEPs behind the scenes as a policy advisor. Now, she calls the shots, as one of Bulgaria’s 17 members; one of only three women. She made her debut as a deputy in the Parliament following the 2014 elections.
Since then, she has become a familiar face to those following tech policy, and a strong advocate for young people and entrepreneurship. It makes sense - at 31, she is one of the few MEPs that grew up with the digital revolution.
It didn’t take long for her to make her mark, winning a Parliament Magazine MEP award for best newcomer just a few months after she was elected.
Maydell’s work focuses on three topics - improving the quality of education for young people, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and promoting technology and digitalisation.
Explaining why these three priorities are inextricably linked, she says, “I believe that digitalisation is the defining process of our time: it has already changed the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate and travel beyond recognition. Yet in the grand scheme of things, it has only just begun.”
“This transformation has had, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact. It’s up to us to make sure it’s a positive one. First and foremost, we need to prepare young people for this new digital world and equip them with the skills they need to thrive within it.
“The new business reality of Europe - a digital economy in a digital single market - demands certain kinds of professionals, and our education systems need to reflect that. Meanwhile we use the added value it generates to tackle widespread problems such as youth unemployment and social exclusion.”
The thread linking Maydell’s work together is education. A recurring complaint on the part of European tech companies is the skills shortage the continent faces, the difficulty they face in finding and hiring tech wizards. “It all comes down to education,” says our cover star.
“Secondary, as well as higher, education needs to balance personal development with factual knowledge and employable skills. This shift needs to be well managed, of course, and focus on emerging and cutting-edge industries to future proof young people’s employability without sacrificing the integrity of the curriculum.”
However, young people can’t do it all on their own. “They need our support and guidance when making the kind of professional and educational decisions that can have serious consequences on their lives,” says Maydell.
“Internships, work placements, apprenticeships or simple on-the-job training, is how young people learn what it is like to be part of certain industries, decide whether it is a career path they would like to pursue, and what the skills and competencies are that would allow them to do so.”
Increasingly, Europe’s digital natives are choosing to forge their own paths and start their own companies. Spotify, Skype and TransferWise are some of the biggest names in European entrepreneurship, and Maydell is confident the future is bright. “I am rather optimistic about the EU’s capacity to nurture entrepreneurship. We have scores of success stories from initiatives such as the Erasmus programme for young entrepreneurs, the Scale-Up Manifesto and the Startup visa, among others, and I can see them becoming increasingly successful in the next several years.”
Still, she does have certain reservations; “What does need to change is our collective attitude to failure. It may sound clichéd but fear is the biggest thing holding people back from trying, and that is of no help to anyone.”
European entrepreneurship may be flourishing - or is on its way to doing so, anyway - but female entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech sector, remain rare. Maydell says, “The trend is changing; tech attracts more and more female talent. Bulgaria has the highest rate of female ICT Students - 34.4 per cent. This is very promising for the future.”
But isn’t putting a positive spin on such a low proportion a sign of how bad things are? The MEP argues that, “as digital industry becomes more and more demanding for the labour force, women will turn to tech in just few years’ time.
“Nevertheless, we need to encourage and show the good examples and female role models in not only tech but also in science, mathematics and engineering. The European Commission’s Women Innovators prize is a very good initiative, and we have a Bulgarian laureate who created the first tablet for visually impaired people. Policymakers, media, and local digital ambassadors must make these examples popular.”
When it comes to digital policy as a whole, Maydell has a positive outlook on the state of play. “I am very pleased that the Commission has more or less finalised and presented most of its proposals on the digital single market (DSM) and I’m particularly happy that, despite some reluctance, we now have a legislative initiative on the free flow of data. I’ve long considered this to be a cornerstone of the DSM project, vital not only for the tech industry, but also for traditional ones - all digitalisation requires data.”
“As for the completion of the digital single market itself,” she adds, “I do not think that it can ever be deemed ‘completed’ per se. We can make it easier and more seamless for people, businesses and governments to operate across borders, but it is, by design, an ever-evolving thing, constantly being changed and improved to respond to and facilitate innovation. Digital policy must become truly horizontal in order to fully embrace the potential, and manage the impact of digitalisation.”
In a few weeks’ time, Maydell’s native Bulgaria will take on the EU Council presidency. She says this will be “an important experience for Bulgaria, as well as for all of us who are in some way involved with politics in the country.
“It will be the first time that many of us will have to see ourselves as representatives not only of our local or national constituencies, but of the Union as a whole. That is no small responsibility to reckon with.
“There will be a lot of decisions being made over the course of the next few years that will prove crucial to the future of the European project. Being at the epicentre of these processes and having their success rest on our shoulders, motivates and energises me immensely.”
The presidency has outlined the three themes that will guide its six-month stint - security, solidarity and stability and has published a 40-page programme.
For Maydell, “There are several issues that are very interesting to me and of cardinal importance to Europe. The first is the understanding, by political leaders and decisionmakers, that the western Balkans are key to Europe’s future. Countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Croatia are our closest neighbours, geographically as well as culturally.
“We need a robust policy strategy to make sure we don’t lose ground to other major players on the global stage. Our security, in terms of both terrorism and migration management, relies on good cooperation within the region.
“Bulgaria has already made headway in this respect, even before it began its mandate; we have been instrumental in revitalising conversations in Brussels about the western Balkans.”
She adds, “The other important goal we’ve set ourselves is increasing legal and regulatory cohesion and reducing inequalities across the continent, to ensure its long-term stability. Removing any leftover differences between new and old member states, for example, addressing inequality between nationalities and ethnicities, between the old and the young, balancing the different forms of cohesion funds and making EU financial instruments and funds more interoperable - these should be at the heart of the new European economic model.”
Maydell also believes that “Bulgaria, and the EU as a whole, need to face contentious and divisive issues such as the new rules on migration, asylum and border security and the social processes they have set in motion.”
The Balkan nation undoubtedly has a busy and challenging six months ahead. Good cooperation with Parliament will, as always with the Council presidency, be crucial. “Bulgaria is quickly getting used to its new role - leading and working on behalf of the whole of Europe.
This means securing key compromises and successfully passing important legislation, which requires close partnerships not just with member states but also with citizens’ representatives - the party groups in Parliament,” says Maydell.
“Europe is undergoing a slow but steady democratic reform, which means that public opinion will play an even larger role in shaping its direction and development. We - MEPs, the Commission and the member states themselves - need to be better at listening to our constituents and finding out their needs, desires and fears. There is no institution in better position to do that than the European Parliament.”
The Bulgarian deputy sometimes gives the impression of being a seasoned politician with a decades-long career behind her, but coupled with a youthful energy. Is it all down to the years she spent working in Parliament before being elected?
“One thing I’ve learned is that an MEP’s mandate can feel very short in the absence of a detailed, realistic plan of action. This is why I think that period as an advisor was of great help for me. I got to witness, and deal with, the small-scale tasks and challenges that make a big-picture vision possible.”
With less than two years left until the next European elections, what’s next? “Now, after time and many invaluable lessons later, I want to use the coming two years to facilitate a real debate on the future of Europe as President of European Movement International, to support the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council, and to complete the digital single market project.”