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‘Europe’s Digital Decade’: how the EU is pitching tech as the driving force behind its recovery

In a state of the union address on Wednesday (16 September), the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, unveiled plans to position tech at the centre of the continent’s pandemic recovery. Here’s a rundown of the key proposals.

€150bn for digital projects

Fresh funding: In what represents the biggest tech funding pledge since the start of her presidency, von der Leyen announced that €150bn of the EU’s €750bn recovery fund will be spent on digital projects. The beneficiaries are yet to be determined, but von der Leyen identified three focus areas: industrial data, AI and infrastructure.

The key quote: “There has never been a better time to invest in European tech companies with new digital hubs growing everywhere from Sofia to Lisbon to Katowice. We have the people, the ideas and the strength as a Union to succeed. And this is why we will invest 20 per cent of NextGenerationEU on digital. We want to lead the way, the European way, to the Digital Age: based on our values, our strength, our global ambitions.”

Industrial data

A new frontier: Von der Leyen is pragmatic about what Europe can and can’t achieve in the tech space. Conceding that the when it comes to consumer data, Europe “has been too slow and is now dependent on others”, she says the commission will instead focus on harnessing industrial data to build a “real data economy”. In order to make this a reality, von der Leyen confirmed that the EU is pushing forward with plans to develop common data spaces hosted on a new cloud platform, GaiaX. The German government has previously described the platform as the most “important digital aspiration in a generation”. Read our reporting on the project here.

The key quote: “Eighty per cent of industrial data is still collected and never used. This is pure waste. A real data economy, on the other hand, would be a powerful engine for innovation and new jobs. And this is why we need to secure this data for Europe and make it widely accessible. We need common data spaces – for example, in the energy or healthcare sectors. This will support innovation ecosystems in which universities, companies and researchers can access and collaborate on data.”

AI, e-identities and algorithmic justice

People-first: The US might have won the race to harvest personal data, but von der Leyen wants to ensure consumers have more influence over how it’s used. In an apparent admission that GDPR has proved less effective than hoped, the commission president said we still “far too rarely have control … over our personal data”.

AI governance: The commission plans to create a “secure European e-identity”, with the aim of returning data control to citizens, while also bringing forward new rules to fight algorithmic injustice. But close followers of von der Leyen’s tech policy proposals might be surprised to see that new AI governance laws have been pushed back again. When the commission chief was elected last November, she promised to introduce AI legislation within the first hundred days of her presidency. Today it emerged that they won’t be rolled out until next year.

The key quote: “Whether it’s precision farming in agriculture, more accurate medical diagnosis or safe autonomous driving – artificial intelligence will open up new worlds for us. But this world also needs rules. We want a set of rules that puts people at the centre. Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong. The commission will propose a law to this effect next year.”

Closing the digital divide

Infrastructure investments: The pandemic has exposed the stark reality of Europe’s digital divide. While communities with good internet connections have been able to continue living life with at least a semblance of normality, others have not been so lucky. Of those living in rural areas, 40 per cent still lack access to fast broadband.

While some of the commission’s tech funding commitments are currently quite wooly, this is one of the areas in which we know it will hand out significant sums of cash in the years ahead.

The key quote: “Without broadband connections, it is now barely possible to build or run a business effectively. This is a huge opportunity and the prerequisite for revitalising rural areas. Only then can they fully exploit their potential and attract more people and investment. The investment boost through NextGenerationEU is a unique chance to drive expansion to every village. This is why we want to focus our investments on secure connectivity, on the expansion of 5G, 6G and fibre.”