‘Crazy about digital’ – but what about the substance?

It has taken the European elections to finally give the digital agenda the political priority it deserves.

The three principal lead candidates for the European Commission presidency – Jean-Claude Juncker (European People’s Party), Martin Schulz (Party of European Socialists) and Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) – are, in the words of Neelie Kroes“going crazy about digital”.

Yet just five short years ago, when Kroes was appointed Vice-President of the Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, many people – especially in her native Netherlands – were quick to criticise the role as a minor one in comparison to her former position as the mighty Competition Commissioner.

The reaction today will be much different, because there is no doubt that the digital agenda holds the key to a globally competitive economy and job creation.

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Estimates suggest that Europe could increase its economic growth by at least four percent by 2020 through the creation of an integrated digital single market (DSM) and the acceleration adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) and digital services. The Commission estimates that the DSM would benefit EU consumers  by some €400 each per year in terms of access to better  and affordable content and lower communications costs , representing some €200 billion in savings Europe wide.

As a result, ‘digital’ is booming as a priority issue in the campaigns of the parties’ lead candidates. Using his fountain pen, Juncker set out a vision for the digital single market:

Schulz proposed a Bill of Digital Rights:

While Verhofstadt calls for a “digital fast forward”:

Setting the agenda for 2014-2019

In response to this campaign rhetoric, Kroes posted a blog setting out what it actually means to be a digital president. It is “not about using the latest new gadgets or typing what you might otherwise handwrite”, but is about “overcoming legacy systems, smashing barriers and tackling vested interests”. Her recommendations to the next Commission president include ensuring an internet-friendly copyright regime, harmonising rules for cloud computing and data, and securing information networks and systems.

Meanwhile the EU’s ‘Digital Champions’ have written an open letter to the candidates that included a call for the next Commission to continue the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs, and to support the Startup Manifesto.

So what can we expect from the three leading candidates?

Their campaigns reveal agreement on the need for completion of the EU’s digital single market as both the top priority and the essential policy instrument for catalysing growth and creating jobs. Candidates also support the need for infrastructure investments and to maintain the EU’s high standards of data privacy.

Additionally, Juncker would re-think the EU’s competition rules in the digital markets, possibly pleasing Europe’s telecoms companies.  He wants more Europe to break down national silos so that European digital content can be generated from and sold across the entire continent.

Meanwhile, Schulz is focused on empowering and protecting European consumers and making sure new technologies benefit the many rather than the few.  His bill of digital rights aims to set a standard for individual rights in the digital world, including making additional digital privacy protection a precondition for a trade deal with the United States.

Schulz has also expressed frustration with Europe’s dependence on American companies, stressing that as Commission President he would take action to free European connectivity “from dependence on and control by the current digital superpowers, irrespective of whether these are nation states or global corporations”.

Verhofstadt has presented four priorities in his ‘digital fast forward’, starting with a European mobile wi-fi plan that would roll out ‘municipal wireless networks’ and turn European cities into wireless access zones.  Other objectives include leveraging the EU’s high standards of privacy as a competitive advantage and the creation of a finance vehicle jointly operated by the European Investment Bank and the European Commission to provide cheap credits to innovative start-ups.

The economy has indeed gone digital, with ICT pervading all social, political and economic activity. The European Internet Foundation points out in its ‘The Digital World in 2030‘ report that all EU policy and regulatory instruments from now on need to be ‘ICT ready’ to meet the demands of the future.

Indeed, the winning candidate may well ‘mainstream’ the digital portfolio across key dossiers in the next Commission. If not, national leaders – unlike in 2009 – will be fighting to claim the Digital Agenda post when portfolios are allocated later this year.