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Ursula von der Leyen is right: digital is the make-or-break issue

Ursula von der Leyen is right: digital is the make-or-break issue

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used powerful language in her State of the Union address on September 15 to underline her dedication to the digital transition. “Digital is the make-or-break issue,” she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The EU’s recovery, she said, needs digital at its heart, so that it is sustained and benefits everyone. “In an unprecedented manner, we will invest in 5G and fibre. But equally important is the investment in digital skills. This task needs leaders' attention and a structured dialogue at top-level,” von der Leyen added.

At Vodafone, we could not agree more. We welcome the ambition and aspirations set out in the Commission’s proposed ‘Path to the Digital Decade’ plan, which will help translate the EU’s digital ambitions for 2030, into action. We recognise a once-in-a-generation opportunity with the €750 billion Next Generation EU recovery programme. We believe that digital connectivity will not only drive Europe’s recovery but will help shape Europe’s future.

However, the real test is whether the EU can deliver on this conviction. The Commission President also knows that it is the responsibility of Member States to deliver the Digital Decade, and the connectivity targets for 2030. However, under current trends, Europe is already falling behind on vital indicators when it comes to investing in connectivity infrastructure, as we have seen in a recent Gap Analysis report, conducted by Deloitte.

This is no doubt why, in parallel with her speech, Mrs von der Leyen announced the ‘Path to the Digital Decade’, plan to translate the 2030 targets into an effective delivery mechanism. It will set up a new shared governance framework with Member States for monitoring the digital transition, measuring progress towards each of the 2030 targets through effective performance indicators (KPIs). Such a framework must be coupled with a willingness to collaborate at every level. EU Member States must work together with the Commission to ensure they can correct course if they are drifting, they must feel accountable, but supported, in equal measure.

We welcome the development of targeted and clearly defined policies that can ensure countries meet their targets, together, unlocking funding in digital and increasing investor confidence in the wider connectivity sector. Connectivity is, after all, the very foundation from which the 2030 targets flourish. With a clear policy roadmap outlining specific areas to improve the regulatory environment, Europe will be well placed to achieve the Digital Decade, future resilience and competitive advantage.

Von der Leyen and the Commission are moving in the right direction. The critical question now is whether national governments can live up to their pledges, whether countries are clear on what’s required and how to get there, and whether the Commission can enforce its measures. Success in these endeavours, as is often the case in the EU, depends on the political will to truly invest in digital.

Success also depends on pursuing a broader digital agenda. This is not just about government spending, but about unlocking additional investment through public-private partnerships. To do that, we need to cultivate engagement between government authorities – at EU, national and local levels – with business to revive economies after the pandemic, creating jobs. We need to cultivate a start-up culture where SMEs prosper and grow in the digital age. We need to establish a safe, secure and trusted digital environment and spread digital skills across the population. And we need to make Europe a global tech powerhouse and a leader in Industry 4.0 that competes successfully with the US and China, on its own terms.

This agenda should be built on four key pillars:

  • Industry 4.0, which would see the merging of the industrial economy with the digital economy to regain lost industrial production, catch up with other regions economically and accelerate the green transition.
  • SMEs, to support the backbone of Europe’s economy, and ensure they are digitalised.
  • Rural, to speed up digitalisation and remove the divide that threatens to leave some communities behind.
  • Digitalisation of public services, to transform how governments provide healthcare, education, transport, and other vital services.

At Vodafone, our own high-speed connectivity and digital platforms are speeding up the EU's digital transition. The Commission can count on our support in its endeavours to achieve a Digital Decade we can all be proud of, and that we can all benefit from. There is widespread alignment on the importance of the digital transition. And whilst there may be associated costs in establishing the right infrastructures to support this digitalisation and complications in revising policies or create new ones, these are investments in time and money that will pay dividends for future generations to come.

Erzsebet Fitori, Group Head of EU Affairs and Relations, Vodafone Group

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