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Günther H. Oettinger’s speech at Bruegel’s event “What Digital Union for Europe?”

Günther H. Oettinger's speech at Bruegel's anniversary event "What Digital Union for Europe?", which took place in Warsaw on 15 June 2015.

By: Date: June 15, 2015 Topic: Digital economy and innovation

Dear Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The world is turning digital – faster than we could have imagined. Digital is already everywhere. Yet, this is only the beginning.

Citizens are digital – three quarters use the Internet regularly. Especially for those under 40, the Internet has become an integral part of our life.

Companies are currently starting the 5th or 6th wave of digital – from simple websites many have moved on to using Enterprise resource planning for logistics, social media for branding, eInvoices for accounting. However, too few of them are selling online.

Also public administrations are moving online fast. One quarter of EU citizens makes requests online.

We have heard about the benefits of the digital world for productivity. Digitisation has been, is and will be good for Europe.

Yet I cannot help thinking that it would be much better for Europe if we were able not only to use digital technology, but also to play a bigger role in creating it.

To generate more high-quality jobs, and to contribute to shaping the digital world. Today, we reap some but not enough of the digital jobs and shape very little of this new Internet world.

Every footballer in the world wants to play in Europe. That is where the game is. For the same reason, every IT specialist dreams of going to the US. We should make Europe a place where IT dreams also come true.

To get there, European policy must follow where citizens, companies and administrations have already gone. Otherwise we will end up with a European Union for the analogue world and a return to purely national thinking for the digital world – 21st century technology with 19th century policy.

Europe needs a Digital Union. With common rules and a common policy Europe has much better chances to seize the opportunities of the digital era.

The Digital Single Market is a key element in this. But not just for economic reasons.

The EU is not anymore just an economic community, it is a European Union. Union of common values and principles.

One of these principles is Europeanisation of the rules to be respected by businesses and giving consumers a consistent level of protection. In a truly Digital Single Market, all should be protected by the same privacy rules. Companies should be able to sell online under the same conditions. Copyright should be better harmonised to give companies and citizens legal certainty when accessing copyright-protected content across borders. Telecom and media companies should benefit from a consistent framework allowing for economies of scale and ensuring a level playing field.

Non-discrimination on the basis of nationality is another fundamental principle – and value – of the EU.

A digital economy in which for example a Polish citizen is refused to buy products on a German website and is instead referred to a Polish website is not compatible with the idea of a Europe which we have been building for the last 50 years.

Surely, there are economic arguments why such discrimination is inefficient. And there are areas, for example for copyright-protected digital content, where it may remain justified, for example in order to preserve the value of rights in the audio-visual sector. But we should definitely act – as announced in our recently published Digital Single Market strategy – against the so-called commercial geo-blocking or similar unjustified discriminatory practices. They are not compatible with a Citizen’s Europe, even if it were impossible to calculate the exact benefits of getting away with such practices.

It was Einstein who said "not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts". And I believe that non-discrimination counts in Europe.

So, if we need a Digital Union for Europe, how should it look like?

Of course there needs to be a true Single Digital Market, with no discrimination, no barriers and so many fragmented rules. But for it to create all the benefits which we expect, we need to help our industries to be at the forefront of developing and exploiting ICT. Sustainable manufacturing, usine du futur, automation, Industrie 4.0,name it as you wish, must be our common European priority, so that our industries can serve the markets of the future.

We also need digital skills. Many more than we have so far. Digital skills for everyday life, for a normal job, and for ICT specialists.

Indeed, today many people are afraid that their job can be "digitised away". Who can compete with an iPad?

This is no idle fear. Many jobs as we know them today will disappear. Some famous studies put the number of current jobs which could be replaced by computers at around 50%.

But this is nothing new. Digitisation or no digitisation, "Nothing is as constant as change" said Heraklit, and he certainly did not have digitisation in mind.

Digital will destroy some jobs, there is no question about it. So did the steam engine and electricity. The question is how fast we can adapt to the new technology, to create new jobs.

To be able to adapt and to use the new technologies we need to upgrade Europe’s overall level of digital skills.

True, this is already happening. Schools are introducing more ICT in their curricula, companies offer more vocational ICT training, even the EU has already launched two initiatives to promote digital education – the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs, and the Opening Up Education initiative.

But does anyone really believe we are moving fast enough? Ten years ago even IT specialists thought a driverless car to be impossible in the near future. Today, Mercedes has already been sending driverless cars and lorries in rush-hour traffic on German roads for some time.

Large-scale upskilling to enable new digital solutions which are improving our lives are not a long-term necessity. It is an urgency.

Companies need digitally competent workers and customers. Public administrations switching to digital need digitally competent citizens. It is only when everybody can handle the digital invoice that the paper-based invoice can be abolished. Until then, Gutenberg’s printing press of 1522 will peacefully coexist with the latest cloud app. And certainly beyond  – people will still want to touch and smell the real paper – but better for leisure than bureaucratic processes.

So we need to accelerate the upgrading of digital skills. But there is only so much policy can do. In the end, citizens will rapidly learn digital only if they want to.

What we really need to do is to make ICT fashionable in Europe, for industries and for people. That is a tall order. But if we manage to make Europe a place where IT dreams do come true, people will start dreaming.

Thank you for your attention.

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