For a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Europe’s focus must be digital ǀ View
It’s now been over five months since the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Within weeks, life as we knew it ground to a halt. Europe’s businesses closed their doors and citizens sheltered in place, as policymakers and health officials grappled with the greatest peacetime public health crisis in a century.
Crises of this scale are also an opportunity to question and, potentially, shake up the status quo. As Europe looks to rebuild and move forward, we must seize the chance to address cracks in the system and make a fair, inclusive and sustainable recovery a priority for all.
What the crisis has shown is that Europe’s recovery must be digital. Throughout the pandemic, Europe has, for the most part, stayed open to business – thanks to technology. From remote working and learning, to virtual medical consultations, digital services have allowed us to stay connected while staying safe. But that’s not to say there aren’t question marks around the increased pervasiveness of technology in our societies.
Calls for Europe to be digitally sovereign are based on valid, legitimate concerns around the protection of personal privacy, the preservation of national security and local economic opportunity. As Europeans first and foremost, we understand these concerns. The EU can, and should, establish the rules that every technology player – regardless of origin – must play by when operating in Europe. We share the commitment to upholding European values and principles of privacy, security, transparency, and interoperability.
Fundamentally, this is about how companies do business, not where they come from. Ensuring that Europe’s digital economy is open to the world supports innovation and choice for business and consumers alike. It is the recipe for creating jobs, boosting economic growth, and safeguarding Europe’s long-term competitiveness.
Taking a rules-based approach to digital sovereignty is also essential for enabling everyone, anywhere in Europe, to reap the benefits of technology. As Europe seeks to recover from the worst recession since the Second World War, supporting small and medium entreprises (SMEs) will be especially crucial. Recent forecasts by the European Commission suggest that the eurozone economy will contract by 8.7 per cent this year. To prevent any further contraction and ensure a return to growth as soon as possible, recovery efforts need to safeguard local economies. Small business leaders are ready to innovate, scale-up, and play their part in helping Europe not just survive, but thrive. But they can’t do it alone.
Firstly, Europe’s businesses need access to the best available technology, to pivot from a model that’s based on asking “what now?” to one that asks “what next?” One of the success factors is data. It is the basis for creating a thriving technology ecosystem in Europe. The sharing of data across companies is essential for stimulating innovation and digital competitiveness. Creating value from machine-generated data will help Europe maintain its edge in the industrial space. However, data is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies. We believe that making data as open and accessible as possible to a large number of organisations and people can bridge the ever-growing data divide and we are committed to doing our part.
Secondly, we cannot lose momentum when it comes to Europe’s transition towards carbon-neutrality. In fact, going green should be the engine for economic recovery, since doing so is as good for growth as it is for the planet. Strategic investments in this area can only increase Europe’s competitive edge. That’s why we support a green recovery to develop a new economic model that is also more resilient, more protective, more sovereign, and more inclusive.
The crisis has served as a magnifying glass, highlighting existing inequalities and the gap between the digital “haves” and “have nots.” There is more work to be done to create equal opportunities for everyone; from improving next-generation connectivity, in particular in rural areas, to increasing access to digital skills so everyone can succeed in a digitally-driven labour market. To this end, we at Microsoft have set ourselves the goal of bringing digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of the year.
Technology companies like Microsoft have a responsibility to help shape a fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable future post-COVID-19. And while shared challenges require that we work together more closely than ever before, Europe must continue to take the lead in defining the guardrails for technology and holding companies accountable to work in the public interest.
European values and rules are our common North Star as we jointly develop the digital solutions of tomorrow. Because at the end of the day, our ambition is a shared one: making Europe fit for the digital age, by making technology fit for Europe first.
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