EU Charts New Course On Technology

The EU again articulates grand ambitions in technology. To What degree will they be realized?

The European Commission (EC) has revisited its data strategy and has revised its vision for how the European Union (EU) will transform itself and lead on global policy in the coming decade, or so the EC is aspiring.


How does this policy document fit with the others? Will this expedite the current proposals in Parliament?

Cocktail Party

The EC keeps its focus on remaking the EU’s economy and society through harnessing and shaping digital policy. The EC is kickstarting a collaborative policymaking process that will ideally result in a framework to force action and follow through in vaulting the EU to the top of the technology policy world by the end of this decade. The EU is responding to similar efforts in the United States (U.S.) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and is seeking, in large part, to achieve independence from the technology from the two countries in part by expanding or developing its own industries. The EU’s push will likely focus minds in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei on the ways they can maintain whatever advantages they currently enjoy and how they can make up ground in those fields they lag.


The EC has again launched an ambitious initiative that will require funding and buy in from EU member nations to realize its goals. The EC is looking to position the EU independently from the U.S. and the PRC even though it is hoping to work with the former on shared goals and on the basis of shared values. The EC wants to remake the EU’s technology industry and radically expand its current capabilities and output. A number of these initiatives echo those being taken at the member state level, including a recent joint effort to increase European production of key semi-conductors, a field currently dominated by the U.S. and a handful of Asian nations. Moreover, even if the EU falls short of all its goals, the bloc can still shape and influence global technology policy and law as proven by the reach of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other measures.

The EC is starting a process that will require input and buy-in from the European Council, the Parliament, member states, industry, and others, and if all goes according to plan there will be a framework in place by the end of 2021 to guide technology policy for the next decade.

Geek Out

The EC recently sent “2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade” (Digital Compass) to the European Council and Parliament, a new framing for its efforts to remake EU law and policy to ensure the bloc’s principles and position adapt and thrive.

The Digital Compass springs from a 2020 speech EC President Ursula von der Leyen made, her 2020 State of the Union address, notably the phrase “digital sovereignty” that the European Council invited her to expand upon:

In the State of the Union Address in September 2020, President von der Leyen announced that Europe should secure digital sovereignty with a common vision of the EU in 2030, based on clear goals and principles. The President put special emphasis on a European Cloud, leadership in ethical artificial intelligence, a secure digital identity for all, and vastly improved data, supercomputer and connectivity infrastructures. In response, the European Council invited the Commission to present a comprehensive Digital Compass by March 2021, setting out digital ambitions for 2030, establishing a monitoring system and outlining key milestones and the means of achieving these ambitions.

In terms of process and next steps, the EC will consult with other stakeholders and then draft legislation with an eye to wrapping up work by the end of the current calendar year:

  • The involvement and commitment of the public and of all stakeholders is crucial to achieve a successful digital transformation. In this context, the Commission, shortly after this Communication, will start a wide consultation process on the digital principles. It will engage with the Member States, the European Parliament, regional and economic and social partners, businesses and citizens, on specific elements of the Communication during 2021, including the compass framework with specific targets and governance. The Commission will set up a stakeholder forum, which would be associated to some aspects of the Digital Compass 2030 work.
  • The Commission will build on these concertation steps with a view to proposing the Digital Policy Programme to the co-legislators by the third quarter of 2021, and hopes to achieve decisive progress with the other institutions on a Declaration of Digital Principles by the end of 2021.

As for what the aforementioned Digital Policy Programme would look like, the EC provided this proposed framework:

The Commission will propose a Digital Compass in the form of a policy programme to be adopted by co-decision of European Parliament and Council. This Digital Compass will include:

(i) concrete targets to reach our vision along four cardinal points measured at EU and national level with key performance indicators based on an enhanced DESI,

(ii) a governance structure – including annual reporting by the Commission to the European Parliament and Council on the progress towards the Digital Decade which could include specific recommendations to limit deviations with the achievement of goals

(iii) monitoring of digital principles endorsed in the inter-institutional declaration, and

(iv) a mechanism to organise with Member States those Multi-Country Projects that are necessary for building Europe’s digital transition in critical areas.

It is clear the EC’s continued focus is the technological hegemony of the U.S. and PRC. In a footnote, the EC states “[a]nalysis made by Commission services for the recovery estimated at €125 billion per year the needs for ICT investment and skills to close the gap with leading competitors in the US and China.” So, clearly, a significant part of its continued focus on the digital realm is to keep pace with the U.S. and PRC, the world leaders in many technology fields. Nonetheless, the Digital Compass would entail work with other governments, and the compass points squarely at the U.S. and “wider coalition of like-minded partners” as opposed to the PRC. This is not to say the EC sees only roses and rainbows in dealing with Washington, but it is clear the new administration is seen as more amendable and simpatico than Beijing. The EC hints at ongoing disagreements with the U.S. and appears to be emphasizing those policies on which they agree.

Moreover, the acceleration of digital life during the pandemic provides further impetus for the EC to revisit and rethink some of its goals and objectives. The EC extolled the benefits of digital life that have eased the effect of the pandemic, including the ability of people to connect and work remotely. However, the EC added the pandemic and increased digitialization of life exposed and exacerbated existing problems:

However, the crisis also exposed the vulnerabilities of our digital space, its increased dependency on critical, often non-EU based, technologies, highlighted the reliance on a few big tech companies, saw a rise in an influx of counterfeit products and cyber theft, and magnified the impact of disinformation on our democratic societies. A new digital divide has also emerged, not only between well-connected urban areas and rural and remote territories, but also between those who can fully benefit from an enriched, accessible and secure digital space with a full range of services, and those who cannot. A similar divide emerged between those businesses already able to leverage the full potential of digital environment and those not yet fully digitalised. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a new ”digital poverty”, making it imperative to ensure that all citizens and businesses in Europe can leverage the digital transformation for a better and more prosperous life. The European vision for 2030 is a digital society where no-one is left behind.

Additionally, the EC is contextualizing the Digital Compass solidly in its current efforts to remake EU society and law in a number of technology policy realms and other policy initiatives, including funding:

This political impetus calls for an intensification of the work begun in the past decade to accelerate Europe’s digital transformation – building on progress towards a fully functioning Digital Single Market, and intensifying actions defined in the strategy for Shaping Europe’s digital future. The strategy set out a programme of policy reform, which have started already with the Data Governance Act, the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the Cybersecurity Strategy. A number of Union budget instruments will support the investments necessary for the digital transition, including the Cohesion programmes, the Technical Support Instrument, and the Digital Europe Programme. The agreement by the co-legislators that a minimum of 20% of the Recovery and Resilience Facility should support the digital transition and will help underpin this reform agenda, with funding to build Europe’s Digital Decade on solid foundations.

Naturally, the EU’s values are front and center in the policy rationale for the Digital Compass:

  • Europe will have to build on its strengths – an open and competitive single market, strong rules embedding European values, being an assertive player in fair and rule-based international trade, its solid industrial base, highly-skilled citizens and a robust civil society.
  • At the same time, it needs to carefully assess and address any strategic weaknesses, vulnerabilities and high-risk dependencies which put at risk the attainment of its ambitions and will need to accelerate associated investment.
  • That is the way for Europe to be digitally sovereign in an interconnected world by building and deploying technological capabilities in a way that empowers people and businesses to seize the potential of the digital transformation, and helps build a healthier and greener society.

The EC provided an illustration of the Digital Compass:

The EC summarized the Digital Compass:

  • Skills: In the world of tomorrow, if we want to be the master of our own destiny, confident in our means, value and choices, we must rely on digitally empowered and capable citizens, a digitally skilled workforce and way more digital experts than today. This should be fostered by the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem, as well as by an effective policy to promote links with and attract talent from all over the globe.
  • Infrastructures: Europe will only achieve digital leadership by building it on a sustainable digital infrastructure regarding connectivity, microelectronics and the ability to process vast data as they act as enablers for other technological developments and support our industry’s competitive edge. Significant investments need to be made in all of these areas that require coordination to achieve European scale.
  • Businesses: During the COVID-19 pandemic embracing digital technologies has become essential for many businesses. By 2030, more than just enablers, digital technologies including 5G, the Internet of Things, edge computing, Artificial Intelligence, robotics and augmented reality will be at the core of new products, new manufacturing processes and new business models based on fair sharing of data in the data economy. In this context, the swift adoption and implementation of the Commission’s proposals for the Digital Single Market and Shaping Europe’s digital future strategies will enhance the digital transformation of businesses and ensure a fair and competitive digital economy. It will also need to be matched with a level playing field abroad.
  • Governments: By 2030, the EU’s objective is to ensure that democratic life and public services online will be fully accessible for everyone, including persons with disabilities, and benefit from a best–in-class digital environment providing for easy-to-use, efficient and personalised services and tools with high security and privacy standards. Secured e-voting would encourage greater public participation on democratic life. User-friendly services will allow citizens of all ages and businesses of all sizes to influence the direction and outcomes of government activities more efficiently and improve public services. Government as a Platform, as a new way of building digital public services, will provide a holistic and easy access to public services with a seamless interplay of advanced capabilities, such as data processing, AI and virtual reality. It will also contribute to stimulating productivity gains by European business, thanks to more efficient services that are digital by default as well as a role model incentivising businesses, in particular SMEs, towards greater digitalisation.

The EC interspersed “proposed level of ambition” declarations of aspired to achievements by 2030 throughout the document:

  • In addition to the target on basic digital skills established in the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, there are 20 million employed ICT specialists in the EU, with convergence between women and men.
  • All European households will be covered by a Gigabit network, with all populated areas covered by 5G
  • The production of cutting-edge and sustainable semiconductors in Europe including processors is at least 20% of world production in value (meaning manufacturing capacities below 5nm nodes aiming at 2nm and 10 times more energy efficient than today)
  • 10,000 climate neutral highly secure edge nodes are deployed in the EU, distributed in a way that will guarantee access to data services with low latency (few milliseconds) wherever businesses are located.
  • By 2025, Europe will have its first computer with quantum acceleration paving the way for Europe to be at the cutting edge of quantum capabilities by 2030.
  • 75% of European enterprises have taken up cloud computing services, big data and Artificial Intelligence
  • More than 90% of European SMEs reach at least a basic level of digital intensity 
  • Europe will grow the pipeline of its innovative scale ups and improve their access to finance, leading to doubling the number of unicorns  in Europe.
  • 100% online provision of key public services available for European citizens and businesses
  • 100% of European citizens have access to medical records (e-records)
  • 80% of citizens will use a digital ID solution.

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