State of the union. Three things about digital policy

For EU geeks, September is a long-awaited month. The State of the Union speech. No, not the American one, the European one. We listen to the priorities of the Commission for the next period, but also the day when we should be more emotionally involved in this project. Because, of course, the purpose of such a speech is also to wake a shred of European spirit in ourselves. The speech is thus not dry and bureaucratic, but it is a combination of priorities and stories meant to awake this European spirit and the leadership that Europe aims to assume.  This year’s impressive story? A young woman from Italy who, 119 days after being discharged from the hospital with a grim prognosis, won the gold medal in the Paralympic Games. Her message? If it seems impossible, then it can be done. This should be the motto of the EU 🙂

Considering the solemnity of the speech and the prioritization of digital policies in general, my endeavour today is to provide an overview with regards to digital from the State of the European Union speech.

What are going to read today?

  • An overview of the significant aspects on digital policies mentioned in the speech
  • What was missing from the speech, if you ask me
  • What these priorities mean for us, citizens

What did the President of the Commission say about digital?

I will start this section with some sound bites that will help me reconstruct the main elements of the speech.

“Digital is the make or break issue”.

Digital (apparently it has become a noun now) is the essential element for the EU’s economic competitiveness. The NextGenerationEU instrument (transposed nationally with our long awaited RRP) will guarantee an acceleration of the digital transformation, especially because, according to Von der Leyen, the Member States are in consensus that we must spend more and better on this. The truth is that she is right, there have been no major issues among the Member States and they are content that they can spend a lot of money on nationally established priorities, instead of the ideas directed from Brussels (but yes, pending the final approval from the Commission)

Like last year, digital has remained the essence of European reconstruction. But it makes no sense to invest in tech and not focus on the human component. So, Von der Leyen advanced the idea that digital skills are as important as 5G or connectivity or artificial intelligence. A sign that digital skills is a priority is the fact that the Commission will jump-start a dialogue in order to create consensus at Member State level towards the prioritization of digital skills. Why can’t it do more? Well, because it does not have the power to do so, as education is a national competence, where the EU plays a supporting role. The treaty says so, not me,

”We are entering a new era of hyper-competitiveness”.

A competition in which the Union wilfully entered and in which it will surely play as the biggest single market in the world. In digital policy, the competition is not only played in artificial intelligence (which wasn’t really mentioned in the speech), but other things are at stake. The things that make the digital space exist: chips and semiconductors.  Because breaking news: cyberspace is rooted in something palpable!

Semiconductors are essential for the phone on which you mindlessly scroll, but are also essential for entire economic or strategic sectors (Dacia slowed down its production because they didn’t have semiconductors in stock) No semiconductors, no chips, no phone, no car. Europe’s weak spot is here and the Commission aims to fix this, namely to increase its presence along the entire supply chain, from research into semiconductors to European production of the stuff. It aims to do so with the European Chips Act.

What does this hypercompetitiveness mean for Europe? The chance to do something on its own, where it can prove (or not) its self-proclaimed capacities through such speeches. When talking about digital, it has done stuff on its own, such as its own data protection system that has started a global conversation on the subject. Of course, failure also exists. But I don’t think the prize is necessarily to be first in semiconductors or the first in artificial intelligence (whatever this might mean). The long-term prize is the chance to do something on its own and to do it right, not only as regards digital policy, but overall as regards European integration.

”If everything is connected, everything can be hacked.”

Last, but not least. A great deal of the speech was dedicated to European defence on many levels, from intelligence sharing to a Defence Union. Beyond the obvious reasons for needing such a defence approach, the emphasis was on transforming the EU into a leader in cybersecurity, by creating a common cyber-defence policy and the creation of common standards for cybersecurity and cyber-defence. Why? The reason is in the sound bite. If everything is connected, everything can be hacked, not only your Facebook account where your password is “password”, but also the electric power grip, for instance.

However, such a statement goes both wars, because it can also make Europe accountable (which is necessary), but it can also create a cyber arms race. This remains to be seen, indeed.

What was missing?

Compared to last year, digital was not that much into focus. Maybe because NextGenEU was launched then and digital priorities were at the top of the instrument. Sometimes also other policy areas need to be in the spotlight 🙂

Even if she brought up digital skills before any other digital policy area, I was expecting a development of the subject, but this was missing. Maybe a new initiative. Even a revamped one would have sufficed. What happened to the digital opportunity traineeships dedicated to youngsters? Especially considering that the speech was mostly dedicated to the youngsters, the true next generation.

Digital sovereignty appeared only once in the speech, even though its spirit was felt when the President talked about bringing some industries back home. I was also expecting a projection of the European digital society model in the presentation of global priorities. This was also missing.

What does all this mean?

Ok, I hope you managed to read down to here because it’s time we asked ourselves what all of this means. Will any of it affect you? At first sight, this is high politics stuff that may never reach you. Or will they?

Firstly, it means that Europe is truly starting to close ranks and continues its commitment to shape the digital space. The intent to bring back semiconductor production to Europe or to produce more stuff in Europe can mean only good things for the citizens – because there will be investment in research, factories. This means more jobs here (and yes, probably more expensive phones). How this will affect us depends also on the Romanian leadership. (Oh, wait…).  Or any Member State for that matter.

Secondly, if Europe closes ranks in order to create defence capabilities, so should you. Two-step authentication, change of password, browsing through the data collected about you, all of this are your responsibility. And they are also things you can do and they don’t cost a thing. Why should you do them? Because if everything is connected, everything can be hacked.

Thirdly, we will see at least a declarative advance on the whole “development of digital skills” thing, but nobody is saying how to do it. Extending the definition of digital skills, media education courses corroborated with tech skills, adapting curricula, testing. These are just some of the proposals.

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