Both the European Union and the rest of the world are facing challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and visualise our future, and has brought with it many structural changes that will likely stay with us well in to the future.
One of these changes is the accelerated digitalisation of society. Technology and digitalisation are proving to be essential in addressing the economic, health and social challenges that have arisen from the pandemic.
These are, of course, fundamental tools that are already part of our lives, but they also entail risks and problems that we need to address. It is not only a matter of development and adaptation; it is also a geostrategic question. Those regions who lead the global digital race now will be the ones leading the future.
“We have to find our own way to regulate the Digital Single Market, one that is based on our values, particularly the protection of our data and privacy”
The EU has little to say in the digital sphere. For the first time in history, Europe is not leading a global revolution. Years ago, Europe led the industrial and the technological revolutions, but now the US and China are leading the development of the digital era.
At the turn of the century, during the technological revolution, Europe had great leaders and was a relevant global actor. Yet we have not been able to create a healthy ecosystem for companies to transition to the digital era, while other parts of the world - the US and China – have given free rein to the private sector, with minimal regulation.
As a result, today there are two possible ways to approach the digital field: the US model or the Chinese one. We Europeans have to fix this situation and win back ground, while respecting our values and way of life.
Throughout history, we have differentiated ourselves from the rest of the world, and made us an example to follow in many areas, such as data protection with the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation, rather than the Chinese ‘surveillance state’ or the United States ‘surveillance economy’ approaches. In the digital race, we are betting on a third model: the European way.
We have to find our own way to regulate the Digital Single Market, one that is based on our values, particularly the protection of our data and privacy, but also the consolidation and promotion of emerging technologies, such as AI, the Internet of Things, or quantum computing.
In the long run, it will provide a competitive advantage for our SMEs, our citizens and for the EU as a whole, as it will guarantee the trust of our citizens, which is key to developing the digital single market. We will reach our competitive advantage based on our own European Way of Life.
The European Commission is well aware of these challenges and the need to catch up with China and the US, and has presented a comprehensive digital strategy. We have listened to people’s concerns, but now we also want to get all the stakeholders involved and onboard. The Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts must aim to move towards a real European digital single market. The digital race is a global race, and the EU must act as a whole to compete globally.
Current European competition rules are designed for companies to compete within the European Union, but not outside, which makes it impossible for our SMEs to compete on equal terms globally. Ultimately, when a digital company emerges in the EU, it is very likely that a digital giant will buy it before it reaches maturity. It is usually more profitable for a European entrepreneur to sell their start-up to a foreign digital giant than keep fighting to grow in a hostile environment.
The EU has to start acting as a proper Union if it wants to compete globally, but for this to happen a third EU initiative is also key: the adoption of the European Data Space. A digital society is a data-driven society.
“Data is a key resource for SMEs, and we must make sure they are able to take full advantage of it within our internal market”
Data is a key resource for SMEs, and we must make sure they are able to take full advantage of it within our internal market. In other words, European SMEs must be able to profit from the data generated inside our borders, which is currently not the case. To make this happen we need to create a level playing field for European companies, as happens in the US and China.
We will of course have to see how a European Data Space is articulated, but I believe this would help to build a much-desired level playing field for our SMEs. The EU faces a new opportunity to catch up in the global digital race, in our own European way. The Commission is working to leverage the entire potential of our Union.
In the European Parliament we will keep working and cooperating with the Commission and Council so that together we can, position the EU as a relevant global actor again. The Digital Services Act sounds good, but let’s wait and see what we get.