Why Europe must lead the digital transformation

If we are to achieve an inclusive, balanced and fair digital transformation, then the lessons from the report on the role of cohesion policy must be taken onboard, argues Cristina Maestre
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By Cristina Maestre

Cristina Maestre (ES, S&D) is rapporteur on the role of cohesion policy in fostering innovative and smart transformation

24 Feb 2022

At the halfway point in the 9th legislature, it is not only leaderships that are being updated; it is also appropriate to assess the progress of the European agenda. This was discussed and agreed at the beginning of the mandate, and defended - with both greater and lesser enthusiasm, depending on the different political sensitivities. 

If we had to identify one of the priorities with the least political contestation and the most support, we could point to the commitment to promote a digital and intelligent transformation that will position us at the best and highest standards of global competitiveness. 

We know that this is an ambitious goal, and one that requires not only a strong political will and commitment but also the promotion of major investment. This will be essential to achieving the effective modernisation and digitisation of our manufacturing base and society as a whole.

“We consider it essential that the goal of universal access to high-capacity networks be achieved once and for all”

But how can this be achieved without creating inequalities or further deepening existing ones? The question is important because, from the outset, there is already a strong digital divide that is causing significant inequalities. 

Which side of that you fall on depends, among other things, on where you live. This is supported by the fact that, according to data provided by the European Commission, 41 percent of people living in rural areas do not have access to high-capacity networks (fibreoptic or broadband), compared to 13 percent of those living in urban areas.

There is therefore a significant geographical gap, which becomes even more pronounced when we zoom in on the demographic level and look at the situation in the most depopulated areas of Europe.

We should also talk about the gender gap evident today.  Major studies show that women are systematically under-represented in the digital sector, occupying only 17 percent of specialised positions. Similarly, there is a generational and educational gap, with 42 percent of the EU adult population lacking basic digital skills. In the manufacturing sector there is also a huge gap, with 37 percent of workers lacking the digital skills required for their jobs and only 17 percent of SMEs having successfully integrated digital technologies into their businesses.

Despite the risk of over-relying on the data, it is worth highlighting the findings to illustrate more precisely the risks and challenges that exist when focusing on a digital transformation strategy. It not just a powerful tool for progress and modernisation, it is also one for social justice and equality.

Here, cohesion policy is a key tool in the correct implementation of these economic objectives. It is essential that policy adapts to the new realities and that it reasserts itself as a guarantor of the proper integration that we pro-Europeans advocate. 

Overcoming all kinds of barriers and inequalities remains one of the most solid principles to be defended. And, once the barriers have been identified, solutions must be proposed to achieve a truly fair digital and intelligent transformation.

“The modernisation of e-Government is as important as the adaptation of traditional industries to new technologies”

This is the aim of the “The role of cohesion policy in fostering innovative and smart transformation and regional connectivity in the field of ICT” report that the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament has promoted, and on which we in the Committee on Regional Development are working. The idea is to study, in depth, the existing vulnerabilities and potential threats while proposing innovative and effective solutions. 

Among other things, we believe it is essential to take advantage of the potential of the recently created ‘European Observatory for Rural Innovation and Development’ for the collection and identification of data, even at a geographic level, for its correct intervention in the most affected regions and municipalities. 

Similarly, we consider it essential that the goal of universal access to high-capacity networks be achieved once and for all. This represents a basic resource for making progress in the acquisition of basic skills which - as not least the COVID-19 pandemic has shown - are essential for accessing essential services. The modernisation of e-Government is as important as the adaptation of traditional industries to new technologies. For this reason, we emphasise support for public entities and entrepreneurs.

In short, the digital transformation offers endless opportunities for the global economy, and the European Union must be a leading power in this economic transformation. However, if we want to continue to maintain the essence and the mission for which it was created, our determination to promote a change to a production which is not only competitive and sustainable, but also fully inclusive and fair, must be unwavering. 

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