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19th Jan 2019

Leaders set to cherry pick EU digital strategy, again

  • Can EU rules keep up with digital development? (Photo: Sacha Fernandez)

EU leaders discussed a European Commission plan for a digital single market at the second day of their summit on Friday (26 June), but there are already signs that member states prefer to pick and choose from the list of initiatives which was supposed to be a package deal.

If national governments do end up stripping down the strategy, presented by commissioners Andrus Ansip and Guenther Oettinger last month, it will be a repetition of what happened to the previous commission's digital action plan.

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“Digital technologies bring immense opportunities for innovation, growth and jobs”, the leaders said in the summit's concluding document, published Friday afternoon.

“The Digital Single Market should be used as a vehicle for inclusive growth in all regions within the EU”, the text adds.

The Digital Single Market is the commission's horizon target which does away with the many barriers EU citizens still face online, barriers which have been removed in the physical world of border-free Europe.

Although the conclusions emphasize “the importance of all dimensions of the commission's strategy”, it highlights eight “key components”. The commission's strategy paper had 16 “initiatives”, some of which consist of multiple elements.

According to the leaders, “action must be taken” to end unjustified geo-blocking; guarantee that copyright-protected material can be accessed across borders; improve the investment climate; look at which ICT standards need to be introduced; ensure the free flow of data; investigate the role of large social media and other online platforms; and to improve digital skills.

Not specifically mentioned were commission plans to increase regulatory oversight of cross-border parcel delivery, and to create EU-wide rules for online purchases of digital content.

Most of the final text matched a draft of the text dated 24 June, seen by this website.

However, the action point “encourage e-Government” had only been added to the final version of the conclusions, published Friday afternoon.

Another last-minute addition was the phrase “we need to … ensure future-proof regulation”.

Earlier this week, the government leaders of eight EU countries signed a letter which warned against too tight regulation.

“We should regulate only where there is clear evidence to do so, backed by the principles of smart regulation and thorough impact assessment. It is very clear that a successful Digital Single Market will not be one that stifles innovation, investment and entrepreneurship”, said the letter, signed by the leaders of Ireland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, and the UK.

“We don’t want any additional burden for SMEs and start-ups”, a Polish diplomat told this website by email.

“And also we have to keep in mind that the digital environment is developing in such a speed that hard regulations may not catch up with the reality”, the source added.

Indeed, when on 17 June 2010 EU leaders first called for the creation of a digital single market, Apple's iPad was 75 days old. The now popular photo app Instagram did not exist yet, nor did video app Vine. Taxi app Uber and accommodation service Airbnb were only available in the US.

It's 2015. Where's my digital single market?

The target which EU leaders set at that summit five years ago, to create “a fully functioning digital single market by 2015” has clearly not been met.

But despite the fast pace of the digital developments, the member states have not been able to match that pace when it comes to finding agreement with the European Parliament on a previous commission plan called Connected Continent, also known as the Telecoms Single Market package.

The plan was introduced by then digital commissioner Neelie Kroes in September 2013. It aimed to introduce EU-wide rules for telecoms operators, increase consumer rights, and coordinate the assignment of radio spectrum at an EU level.

However, since Latvia took over as temporary EU chair on 1 January 2015, it has focused its negotiations with parliament on only two elements from the plan.

The package has been stripped down and the past six months’ discussions have been mostly about the proposal to end roaming charges and to set rules that would ensure the openness of the Internet - so-called net neutrality.

Progress has been slow, but Latvia is determined to close the file before its EU presidency ends next Tuesday. It has scheduled another round of negotiations with the EP and commission on Monday.

If they do manage to clinch a deal, then at least the authors of the EU Council conclusions can claim a little success of being listened to.

According to the conclusions, the EU leaders said that the TSM package - or what is left of it - “must be rapidly adopted”.

This article has been updated on Friday 26 June 17:11 to report on the contents of the final summit conclusion.

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