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18th Jan 2019

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Nordic and Baltic countries step up digitalisation efforts

  • Nordic countries say they had a good starting point for digitalisation because they come from cultures of trust and high education. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Nordic and Baltic countries have joined hands in a bid to lead the digitalisation of Europe.

At the occasion of Digital North, a conference that took place in Oslo on Tuesday (25 April), ministers from the Nordic and Baltic regions signed a declaration, by which they committed to step up their digitalisation efforts - not only within the countries, but also across borders.

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  • Nordic and Baltic ministers of digitalisation met for the first time in Oslo. (Photo: Norden.org)

"It should be possible to use the same e-ID in all the Nordic and Baltic countries. Our countries are well-integrated, but not so much when it comes to digital public services," said Norway's minister of local government, Jan Tore Sanner.

Through the declaration, the ministers committed to promote closer cooperation between administrations, support the free movement of data and put in place the EU digital single market in the Nordic-Baltic region.

"We, in the Nordic countries, like to know our public sector as the best in the world. But as society is transforming, it means we have to re-organise our public services and allocate resources from administration to other services, such as healthcare," Sanner said.

"If we don't, citizens will lose trust in us and our parties will lose the elections," he added.

Nordic countries are currently the front-runners of digitalisation in Europe, but this could change fast.

The European Commission's Digital Economy and Society (Desi) index shows that Sweden, which has done little to upgrade its public services, is already falling behind its Nordic neighbours and could soon be overtaken by Estonia, currently listed as 10th and rapidly moving up the ranks.

According to the Desi index, the EU is globally behind the US, Canada, and some Asian countries, such as South Korea and Japan. It is ahead of Russia, China and Turkey, but those countries are digitalising faster and could soon dethrone their EU rivals.

"There is not one country that can rest on its laurels," said Mari Kiviniemi, a former prime minister of Finland and the current deputy secretary general of the OECD, a club of rich nations.

"Many perform well, but all can do better," she added.

Kiviniemi stressed, in particular, the challenge of governmental leadership in digitalisation, which gets lost in silos and lack of strategic thinking.

Sanner, the Norwegian minister, said all countries were doing things a bit differently, meaning they could learn from each other.

Denmark, for instance, made it mandatory to use digital services in 2010. The city of Copenhagen has introduced mobile civil servants on a special bicycle equipped with a computer, printer and wifi. They travel around the city helping less digitally savvy citizens to use such services as e-ID and digital post boxes.

"It's a little more difficult to cycle around Norway, but we should also find a way of being close to our citizens," Sanner said.

Denmark is currently leading the Desi index, but Norway is challenging that position.

Norway, albeit not a member of the EU, is part of the single market and worries that Europe's digitalisation is not happening fast enough.

Lagging behind

The European Commission had pledged to put in place a digital single market by 2018. But the mid-term review, which is currently underway, shows the plans are falling behind schedule.

Norway does not have influence over the decisions, but wants to give the topic extra attention by making it a priority of its current presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers - an intergovernmental forum gathering Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Aland.

Sanner said the Nordic countries had a good starting point for digitalisation because they come from cultures of trust and high education. Their welfare systems combine flexibility and security, allowing those who lose their job, for instance, in the wake of digitalisation, to be re-trained for other jobs.

But trust is also the result of well-functioning public services.

Estonia, despite its very different legacy as a post-Soviet state, is currently ranked highest in the EU in terms of e-government. Trust in its e-services is so high that one third of the citizens vote electronically.

Urve Palo, the minister of entrepreneurship and IT, told EUobserver that this trust had been build "step by step" over the last 17 years.

"In the 1990s, it was the banking industry that championed digitalisation, but in 2000, the government also made it a priority. Now we have to make sure that Estonia's traditional industries, which haven't digitalised to the same extent, are not left behind," she said.

"But citizens are fully digitalised, because it's so convenient. I filled out my tax form the other day and it took me ten minutes, because everything was already filled out," she said.

Digitalisation will be a priority when Estonia assumes the rotating presidency of the European Council from July. Palo said that her main priority would be to unlock the proposal on free movement of data.

"The free movement of data should become the fifth freedom of the EU," she said.

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