Greetings from Brussels!
Last Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen delivered an ambitious first State of the Union address to the European Parliament against a backdrop of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval within the union — not the most enviable task, you’ll agree. Why is the address important, you may ask? In many respects, the speech gives insights into the direction of this commission and touches upon the plans of the next 12 months. Moreover, it is not only a vision for Europe, but also a declaration of intent to the rest of the world. While there was much to absorb, the key areas I was particularly interested in were her statements regarding data, digital and technology.
On Europe’s digital agenda, and speaking to 2030 goals, the president remarked that the coming decade must be Europe’s digital decade based on four clear principles: the right to privacy and connectivity, freedom of speech, free flow of data and cybersecurity. She emphasized Europe must lead the way on digital or follow the way of others who will set the standards. With a focus on data, it was pointed out that when it comes to B2C data, “Europe has been too slow and it is now dependent on others. This cannot happen with industrial data,” she said, referring to it as “worth its weight in gold” when it comes to developing new products and services. The amount of industrial data in the world will quadruple in the next five years — and so will the opportunities that come with it. The vision is one in which a real data economy would be a powerful engine serving European innovation and new jobs: “And this is why we need to secure this data for Europe and make it widely accessible.” She concluded on this point by announcing the creation of a European cloud as a flagship project of the new “NextGenerationEU” instrument.
In short, the NGEU is a major new recovery, renovation and resilience facility of more than 750 billion euros aimed at providing financial support for investments and reforms, including digital transitions within EU member state economies aligned to common EU priorities. Importantly, von der Leyen has committed the union to spend 20% of the facility on digital investments, which is sizable.
On technology, von der Leyen also addressed the power of artificial intelligence, which she acknowledged will bring about innovation for Europe across industry sectors. “But this world also needs rules,” she said, while confirming that the European Commission will be proposing a new law on AI in 2021. More specifically, the law will tackle the issues of supervision and control of personal data. She went on to say, “We want a set of rules that puts people at the center. Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong.” Giving consumers more control over how their data is used in the big data-powered AI era is a clear cornerstone of the digital vision. On a parallel note, the need for better infrastructure was also cited as key to building a competitive and accessible Europe. Von der Leyen reminded the Parliament that 40% of people in rural areas still do not have access to fast broadband connections.
Incidentally, it came as no surprise for many when earlier this week in an interview with the Financial Times, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton — who is leading the overhaul of digital rules for the union — spoke of taking on big technology companies, including the ability to force them to “break up or sell some of their European operations if their market dominance threatens the interests of consumers and smaller rivals.” Breton drew the comparison of the power of big platforms with that of the banks before the financial crisis of 2008, saying that “regulators need to take similar steps ... to rein them in.”
Von der Leyen’s speech was certainly elevated and borderline brave new world. In the president’s own words, if Europe is to move forward and move fast, it must let go of its hesitancies.
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