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22nd Oct 2019

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Estonia sees digital summit as success in itself

  • EU leaders met for dinner In Tallinn's Kadriorg Palace ahead of Friday's summit. (Photo: Consilium)

EU leaders are convening in Tallinn on Friday (29 September) to discuss their visions for the digital future of Europe.

One challenge for Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas, chairing the meeting, will be to make the debate concrete enough.

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  • The debate will take place in the Tallinn Creative Hub (Photo: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency)

The idea of the summit is to take a look beyond election cycles and to find a way for Europe to "stay ahead of the digital curve", according to Klen Jaarats, an advisor to Ratas.

"We hope to get a shared understanding from EU leaders on where do we want to be by 2025," said Jaarats, who is the prime minister's director for European Union affairs.

Estonia, which initiated and is organising the summit, has prepared a background paper, which includes questions to be discussed, such as:

"What steps are needed to make the EU the best platform for the digital economy?"

"How can we nurture a highly-skilled workforce and digitally literate citizens? "

"How can cybersecurity serve as an enabler for trust and confidence in a free and open internet and society?

"How can we bring governments and the public sector into the digital age?"

While the Tallinn digital summit will be more focused than regular EU summits in Brussels, the four questions already highlight the broad nature of the theme.

Broad theme

The presidency wants to stay away from discussing specific legislative files aimed at creating a digital single market.

That also brings the risk of a discussion derailing and going off-topic, or of leaders only speaking in very general terms.

But a source close to the presidency said that some leaders will come to the discussion "with concrete points".

The summit takes place in the same month as the four biggest eurozone countries, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, proposed a new way to tax internet companies.

It also follows a speech by French president Emmanuel Macron, which included many ideas, including on the digital revolution.

"Let us create within two years a European agency for innovation ... to be in the position of innovator and not of follower," said Macron, calling for additional spending in research on for example artificial intelligence.

Some of the summit's guests may echo the same sentiment.

Finnish cyber security professor Jarno Limnell will give a speech before the leaders' working session.

Earlier this week, Limnell told a Swedish-language Finnish newspaper that Europe should rely less on American internet companies.

"The level of self-sufficiency … must be strengthened properly," he told Vasabladet.

A second guest speaker, James Manyika, leads the McKinsey Global Institute, a private sector think tank.

Earlier this year, he co-authored a study which said that in the five largest European economies - France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK - there were over 60 million full-time jobs that were "associated with automatable activities".

National powers

Digital skills and how to adapt to an increasingly automated world is likely to be referred to in the debate.

However, while leaders may discuss it, it is unlikely that they will want European solutions for all these issues.

"A lot of issues are national responsibilities, like skills, like unemployment, like funding infrastructure for the digital society," said Jaarats.

"Europe can set the framework conditions support the achievement of these goals and the leaders need to deliver," he added.

Success

Unlike regular summits in Brussels, the digital conference will not yield a written declaration or conclusions. Instead, Estonian prime minister Juri Ratas will brief the press afterward, together with European commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk.

In the coming weeks, Estonia will write a report summarising the debate.

But with all leaders having committed to attending, the digitally minded Estonians have already managed to shape the discussion.

"In a way, the fact that the summit is taking place is already a success," said Jaarats.

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