- The Digital Economy and Society is a wide portfolio with many repercussions at the local and regional level. Where are the areas that you see room for cooperation with local and regional authorities?
Digital economy and society touches upon everybody. I think all areas would benefit from a fruitful cooperation. I would like however to underline the necessity to join our efforts when it comes to connectivity and skills (I put some ideas, but Manuel is free to take/delete, same on the wifi4EU connectivity part). Today less than 76 % of European households have access to internet connections of decent speed; in rural areas, that percentage goes down to less than 40 %. Investment in broadband coverage can be financed from different sources, including European funding; however the take up of such investment opportunities is much smaller than it could be. Certain Member States even are in the process of re-programming resources that were initially allocated to broadband investment.
We need to work together with local and regional authorities to better identify connectivity investment needs, to better target financial resources and simplify procedures where necessary. I also count on regional and local authorities to promote in their specific constituencies, including in the local business communities, the EU connectivity objectives and funding opportunities. Shortly, we will launch the first call for the Wifi4EU, on the basis of which, we will provide vouchers to local authorities to cover for the expenses incurred for installing free WiFi access in public spaces. We would like to see numerous applications coming from all Member States. I would also like to recall the Connectivity Broadband Fund, which we are in the process of launching. The fund is expected to unlock additional investments between €1 billion and €1.7 billion in broadband deployment in underserved areas, where very high-capacity networks are not deployed yet. The Fund aims to have invested in 20 countries by 2021.
As for skills, we need to raise awareness together and make sure that we use the resources we have to prepare our citizens and protect them accordingly in order to benefit from the digital revolution, not be victims of it. Upskilling and reskilling should target all – young and old, those that need basic digital skills, as well as those who need highly advanced skills. We need targeted measures for each of these groups. We need to anticipate change and turn it into opportunity.
- Achieving a connected Digital Single Market is the number 2 priority in the roadmap launched by Jean Claude Juncker after his State of the Union speech. Do you agree that this should be a priority?
Yes, this is my priority number 1.The internet and digital technologies are transforming our economy, our society, our world. But a lot of barriers still exist online. This mean citizens miss out on goods and services, internet companies and startups have their horizons limited, and businesses and governments cannot fully benefit from the digital revolution.
This is why, the European Commission launched its Digital Single Market Strategy in May 2015. A fully functional Digital Single Market could contribute €415 billion per year to the EU’s economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in Europe.
Since 2015, the Commission has made good on its promise and delivered 35 initiatives to e.g. prohibit geo-blocking, modernize the copyright rules, invest in connectivity and adjust rules to the data economy.
These initiatives mean concrete changes for the life of our citizens. Let me mention a few examples:
- The update of European audio-visual media services rules will create a fairer environment for all, promote European films, protect children and better tackle hate speech online.
- Modernised copyright rules will guarantee fair remuneration for journalists, publishers and authors, while boosting consumers choice to content online and across borders.
- As of May 2018, a new single set of EU rules on data protection and privacy in electronic communications. This will allow people to take back control of their personal data and set clear limits on the use of their data.
- The WiFi4EU initiative will help local authorities offer free Wi-Fi connections for all in towns and villages in the EU by 2020. At least 6000 to 8000 local communities will be able to benefit from a total funding of €120 million until 2020.
- Thanks to €6.7 billion from public and private investment, the European Open Science Cloud will by 2020 offer Europe’s 1.7 million researchers and 70 million science professionals a virtual environment to store, share and re-use their data across disciplines and borders.
- In the EU, 4 out of 10 retailers use geo-blocking. Removing geo-blocking would lead to a consumer gain of €500 million, firms’ profit would increase by €283 million from new trade.
Finally, last May the Commission presented a midterm review of the DSM implementation which included further work in the field of online platforms, cybersecurity and free flow of data. My focus is now to work very hard with the co-legislator, – the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in order to make all DSM proposals – the new ones and those currently under negotiation – a reality for our citizens, as we did for the end of roaming last summer.
- The WIFI4EU scheme was recently approved by the European Parliament. Could you tell us a bit about the next steps and how local and regional authorities will be involved? How will the launch of the Broadband Platform fit into this work?
The portal for the WiFi4EU initiative will be launched publically towards the end of the year and the first call expected to be in early 2018. After the new legislation enters into force, we will be able to finalise the implementation steps, notably change the CEF Work Programme after consultation of the Member States. In parallel, an information campaign will start across Europe, targeting in particular the municipalities. The Broadband Platform will provide a useful forum for political discussion and a relay of information about this initiative across all European regions.
- The EPP Group in the CoR has the lead on the CoR opinion on the mid-term review of the Digital Single Market. Our rapporteur, Alin Nica, has concerns about data privacy in the digital age and how local politicians can best protect their citizens. What advice would you give him?
There are a few things that can be done. Most important are skills – citizens need to be aware of the options and rights they have and of the tools that can help them. But companies also need skills to understand their obligations and comply. When it comes to local companies another idea is to push very directly for more privacy-friendly approaches. For example, it would already be great progress if the local banks and the local utilities and maybe also the local administration would support and perhaps even promote personal data management tools. (Such tools empower the user to manage her own data online and to decide in a very simple and secure way with whom to share them.)
- Managing taxes in the digital age is a specific challenge. What is your position on unifying VAT for online commerce?
My position on this matter is that of the European Commission. In most EU countries, e-publications are charged a standard VAT rate. However, publications on physical media can benefit from significantly lower rates or even not pay tax at all. The amended EU VAT rules would contribute to the EU’s pursuit of its digital single market strategy and, more broadly, help it to keep pace with technological progress in the digital economy. We have to ensure a level playing field for everybody.