Martina Furlan, 89 Belgium
The information and views presented in this article are those of the authors only, and do not reflect the positions and opinions of their former or current employers, or of any organisation they were or are affiliated with.
In March 2022, The European Commission is expected to present a new policy programme to support the digital decade: the 2030 Digital Compass. The first version was presented in March 2021 and it covers four main topics: making citizens fit for the digital age, building up the necessary infrastructure for digitalisation, enhancing digitalisation at business level, and deploying digital public services. Besides the internal dimension of digitalisation, there is also an outline of a strategy for European digital diplomacy. The Compass covers a wide array of topics, but it lacks a clear structure and explanation about how the EU will achieve its goals. This article explains the main features and fundamental concepts of a strategy that certainly needs clarification.
What is the Digital Compass?
The Digital Compass (the Compass) is part of the EU’s 2030 Policy Programme “Path to the Digital Decade (1) and sets out a 10-years-long roadmap for Europe’s digital transition. It narrows down the objectives outlined in 2020 in the Strategy “Shaping Europe’s Digital Transition” (2). More precisely, it sets out 11 goals, a monitoring system, and key milestones to achieve these ambitions by the end of the decade. Digitalisation lays on four main pillars: skilled manpower, physical infrastructure, digitalisation of public services and businesses. The efforts at home will be accompanied by the establishment of international partnerships to promote a value-based digitalisation (3). Digitalisation will be financed by the EU budget instruments and at least 20% of the Recovery and Resilience Facility.
What is the state of negotiation?
On 9 March 2021, the Commission adopted the Communication “The 2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade.” Following a stakeholder review, the Commission is preparing a new version, which will be proposed in the form of a policy programme to be adopted by co-decision of the European Parliament and the Council in March 2022.
What is the vision for 2030 in the Digital Compass?
The Compass aims to pave the way to creating a secure human-centered digital ecosystem, where citizens are empowered, and businesses prosper from the digital potential. More and more digital infrastructure, in terms of hardware and software, should be developed in Europe in coherence with the objectives of the European Green Deal.
Stating its vision, the Commission acknowledges the shortcomings of the European digital space, the uneven distribution of digital skills and resources for digitalisation, and the dependency on foreign supply chains. Almost 30 years into the widespread use of the internet, a digital divide has emerged between citizens and businesses, urban/non-urban areas, and between high and low-income countries. The uneven distribution of knowledge and skills can hamper the ambitions of a continent-wide digital decade. The second issue, the dependency on foreign products and services, could lead to economic loss and incompatibility between foreign and European values that underpin digital solutions that are developed.
What are the goals for the Digital Decade?
The goals cover four main areas: digital skills (goal 1), digital infrastructure (goals 2, 3, 4 and 5), digital transformation of businesses (goals 6, 7, 8) and digitalisation of public services (goals 9, 10, 11). The goals are the following:
- By 2030, the EU needs to have a digitally skilled population and 20 millions ICT specialists in the EU.
- By 2030, all European households should be covered by a Gigabit network, with all populated areas covered by 5G.
- By 2030, the European production of cutting-edge and sustainable semiconductors should represent at least 20% of world production in value.
- By 2030, 10.000 edge nodes should be deployed in the EU, to guarantee access to data services with a low latency wherever businesses are located.
- By 2025, the first computer with quantum acceleration should be deployed in the EU and the EU should be at the forefront of quantum capabilities by 2030.
- By 2030, 75% of European enterprises should use cloud computing services, big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
- By 2030, 90% of European SMEs should reach at least a basic level of digital intensity.
- By 2030, Europe should double the number of unicorns.
- By 2030, 100% of key public services will be available online for citizens and businesses.
- By 2030, 100% of European citizens should have access to electronic medical records.
- By 2030, 80% of European citizens should use digital IDs.
The first goal speaks about building up basic and advanced digital skills so that by 2030, 80% of adults acquire at least basic digital skills. In parallel to that, Europeans should develop advanced digital skills, generally defined as all the abilities that help people get quality jobs and rewarding careers. Specifically, the Commission wants to have, by 2030, 20 million employed ICT specialists in the EU, with convergence between women and men.
The second, third, fourth, and fifth goals are digital infrastructure. The backbone of digital infrastructure is a secure internet connection, which could be reached with a mix of technologies, such as mobile and satellite connectivity and a Very High Capacity Network, including 5G and 6G. The EU will support Broadband rollout even outside its borders, particularly in the neighborhood countries. Second, the Commission intends to support the production of microprocessors. In the past year, as the supply of microprocessors from abroad slowed down, several European companies halted their production. Also, microprocessors are essential for other decade technologies, such as AI and the IoT. Horizon Europe will support the build-up of manufacturing capacities.
The Commission considers crucial edge nodes, computers used to process data with a distributed management system. Distributed data processing instead of centralized data processing is becoming the preferred choice of companies, primarily because of the many advantages in data management: reliability, efficiency, and adjustability (4). Organizations will need edge nodes – computers that act as “gateways” with other computers to support this transition. The last key technology is quantum computing, a game-changer in many fields. Member states envisaged using the Recovery fund for a common purchase of supercomputers and the development of quantum communication infrastructure.
Businesses’ uptake of digital technologies is an essential element of the Compass. The Commission intends to support different digital technologies at the enterprise level through the Single Market, Digital Europe, and Cohesion programs. By guaranteeing extra finance through Horizon Europe and InvestEU to small enterprises and startups, the Commission wants to double the number of unicorns by 2030. The ambition is to make the EU a desirable home for fast-growing and scalable businesses.
The last topic is the accessibility of democratic life and public services online. The main idea is that online government services go beyond simple online forms, and technology enables advanced solutions for citizens. For example, interoperability across government levels could increase efficiency in the public sector; exchanging online information among different governments would facilitate mobility and help solve common issues, use of big data could improve life quality, etc. One concrete example of this is access to electronic health records and the possibility to share health information online. Such services should be accessible via a universal digital identity, but the Commission did not reveal its features.
The Monitoring will be based on the Commission’s assessment of the progress achieved at the EU level and on member states’ reporting. Every year, the Commission will publish the European State of the Digital Decade Report, which will raise awareness on deviations towards the 2030 Goals. The report will bring about a collaboration between the Commission and Member states to identify solutions and make adjustments.
International Partnerships for the Digital Decade
The last part of the Compass is very relevant in that it could represent an outline of a European digital diplomacy strategy. In its international engagement, the Commission wants to pursue three main goals: create a level playing field in digital markets, create secure cyberspace, and uphold fundamental rights online. The actions it intends to take revolve around building coalitions with like-minded partners, defending a human-rights-based approach towards digitalisation, promoting the convergence to European standards on cybersecurity and AI, and actively working in multilateral fora, such as the WTO, the G20, and the OECD.
What the Compass needs to do better
There are several shortcomings in the Compass, which derive from a general lack of clarity. First, it is not clear what data underpin the quantitative objectives set by the Commission, and second, many concepts lack appropriate definitions. Third, whether the part on International Partnerships for the Digital Decade belongs to the Compass or represents a different strategy is unclear. Overall, there are only a few references to the problems that arise with digitalization – digital divide and dependency on foreign value chains. In this respect, the Commission does not follow up on the issues it mentions in its vision, making this part of the Compass somehow incoherent.
The most unclear goal formulation concerns digital infrastructure. There is no definition of Gigabit connection nor populated areas where 5G should be rolled out. Further, setting up 5G infrastructure is expensive and needs complex partnerships. Since many countries in Europe have difficulties with the rollout of 4G connections (5), progress to 5G in a short time is not to be given for granted. Based on a state of the art analysis, setting achievable short-term goals for the following years would be more realistic. Coming to the intent of distributing 10.000 edge node computers in the EU, it is not clear who should deploy them and who should finance their purchase, whether it is governments, businesses, or research institutions.
Even the setting of objectives underpinning the digitalisation of public services lays on vague promises. The text mentions the need to create a universal digital identity, but it does not specify its meaning. On the contrary, the digitalisation of businesses is supported by concrete programs and funding sources, which gives confidence that the path to help enterprises embrace clouds, big data, and AI is straightforward.
In its vision, the Commission acknowledged a couple of silent risks that digitalisation brings along, but it does not elaborate further on that. This omission stands out, mainly because the 2020 Strategy “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future” invited “reflect at all levels of society on how Europe best meet, and continue to meet /…./ risks and challenges that come along with a substantial societal transformation.” The digital divide is a topic that gives cause for concern at different levels. In the WEF Risk Report 2021, respondents to the “Global Risk Perception Survey 2020” rated digital inequality sixth most likely long–term risk (6). The divide causes digital poverty among citizens and exacerbates the uneven concentration of economic activities in large organizations and leading regions, jamming the engine of European convergence (7). These premises do certainly not support the possibility of an inclusive recovery.
Last, the external dimension of the Digital decade. The EU wants to “become a purposeful digital player in its own right” (8) on the global scale, and the Commission intends to pursue many actions: working in multilateral fora, building coalitions of like-minded states, working in standard-setting organizations, etc. Such goals are the outline of a strategy on digital policy, which, because it is so complex and multifaceted, deserves a stand-alone strategy.
The Digital Compass sets far-reaching goals that will underpin the digital transition organically. For the strategy to be credible, plans should be based on realistic assumptions and backed by a state-of-the-art analysis. The Commission laid out strong metrics; but it needs to to clarify how the EU will achieve these goals and the roles of the involved entities – the European institutions, member states, companies, and research institutions. The Compass should be more precise on the definitions so that stakeholders can achieve said goals. Finally, the part on external outreach is so ambitious it deserves a self-standing document, possibly explaining in great detail the purposes of European digital diplomacy and who has the competence to pursue it. Only a precise plan will help Europe achieve its ambitious goals by 2030.
(1) European Commission. (2021). Proposal for a DECISION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL establishing the 2030 Policy Programme “Path to the Digital Decade.” Available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52021PC0574
(2) European Commission. (2020). Shaping Europe’s digital future. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-shaping-europes-digital-future-feb2020_en_4.pdf (Accessed 6 January 2020).
(3) European Commission. (2021). COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS. 2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-shaping-europes-digital-future-feb2020_en_4.pdf (Accessed 6 January 2020).
(4) Trivedi, V. (2019). How to Speak Tech. Springer Nature: New York.
(5) European Data Journalism Network. (2021). Where do we stand on the road to a European Gigabit Society? Available at: https://www.europeandatajournalism.eu/eng/News/Data-news/Where-do-we-stand-on-the-road-to-a-European-Gigabit-Society (Accessed 6 January 2020).
(6) World Economic Forum. (2021). The Global Risk Report 2021. Available at: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2021.pdf (Accessed 6 January 2020).
(7) The World Bank. (2020). Europe 4.0 and the Digital Divide. Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/events/2020/12/07/europe-4-0-and-digital-divide (Accessed 6 January 2020).
(8) European Commission. (2021). State of the Union Address by President Von der Leyen. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_21_4701 (Accessed 6 January 2020).