[Previously published in Spanish in CC/ Europa]
The digital Europe does not exist yet. However, the digital age is already a reality and is increasingly being perceived in our daily lives. We are usually content with the milestones of the European Union during the 20th century, rather than thinking how to improve and adapt the current EU to the present and to the future. We often mention the single market, the freedom of goods, people, services and capitals, or the absence of interior borders within the Schengen area (although the States are able to temporary close the borders…). Summing up, we cannot deny that, along the last century, important steps have been done concerning the European integration process. But in the 20th century, I insist on this. And this century already belongs to history books.
We cannot resign ourselves to the argument that we were successful to create the multinational organization with the world’s highest level of integration. Mission accomplished? Definitely not. But what would it serve all progress done so far in the 21st century Europe, immersed in a digital society, where there are no more restriction in terms of space and time? Isn’t cyber security becoming one the main current threats? Don’t we buy increasingly goods through the Internet, and mobility and electronic communications are not anymore strictly national?
Digital transformation affects to all economic sectors. Therefore, lagging behind means missing growth and economic and social progress. We can wonder how is Europe reacting to this maelstrom of digitalisation. Let’s just consider one example. If we would need to mention the biggest world tech companies, not so many European ones come to our minds, right? Obviously, Europe must react.
What is the European Union doing to make steps towards this direction? The European Commission adopted in 2015 a Strategy so that the EU becomes a connected digital single market, instead of just a single market. How to achieve it? The Commission established three pillars for it: improving access to digital goods and services; designing an environment where digital networks and services can prosper; and ensuring that digitalization of European economy becomes a driver for growth.
Words must turn into facts to convince Europeans that the EU is useful. The telecommunications single market was the first step. Roaming surcharges were clearly going to disappear in June 2017. That is what Brussels promised us. A ‘false’ proposal came later on with some exceptions. And finally a new ambiguous text where some disposals are not clear. To sum up, in 2017 roaming surcharges are going to be eliminated, but with some restrictions to avoid abuses, as the Commission points out.
Some steps towards that ‘digital union’ are being done despite the difficulties due to the technological divergences between Member States. The European Commission presented in 2016 some initiatives concerning the digitalization of the European industry, e-commerce, digital skills, a public-private agreement on cyber security, and an initiative on connectivity where the action plan on 5G together with telecoms regulations are included.
The problem is that the European market is fragmented and the national markets isolated in many aspects. If we continue this way, we will not be able to obtain the benefits we should from the data economy. The Internet of Things, for instance, is fundamental for the future of EU competitiveness. There are more and more things online. And we, citizens, can really benefit from all this. This ecosystem transforms business models, promotes smart cities and homes, and connected cars, as well as in many other sectors (health, environment, agriculture, etc.).
Europe cannot allow to stay just as a spectator looking at the progress of the digital society or as consumers of the technology created and developed outside of Europe. The EU has the potential to take the leadership of this digital revolution, but to this end we need more legal harmonisation at European level, such as, for instance, concerning spectrum aiming to release the 700 MHz band and, therefore, to allow the arrival of 5G to have access to innovative services in Europe such as the Internet of Things.
The UE is walking, slowly, towards that ambitious objective of achieving a connected digital single market. It is not easy at all due to the existing differences between European countries. But the interest of all EU States is to make steps towards a greater convergence, also in the digital field. A World Economic Forum’s study states that 65% of the current students of primary school will have employments not existing nowadays. It is evident there is much at stake. And what we achieve (or not) today will lead to important consequences for the next generations. It is clear Europe cannot lose this opportunity.
Author: Rubén Ruiz Calleja