On Tuesday, 9th June 2020, the EU Council adopted conclusions on shaping Europe’s digital future post Covid-19, addressing a wide range of issues related to the implementation of the EU digital strategy (https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/06/09/shaping-europe-s-digital-future-council-adopts-conclusions/).
The above follows the discussion by the EU Telecoms Ministers upon the text, on the 5th June 2020, whereby it highlights the impact of the digital transformation on fighting the pandemic, and its critical role in the post-COVID-19 recovery (https://www.euractiv.com/section/digital/news/ministers-to-chart-europes-digital-future-with-post-covid19-commitments/).
The EU Council reiterates that acceleration of the digital transformation will be an essential component of the EU’s response to the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also of the view that achieving these goals, requires a substantive boost and wider coordination of investment, in connection with the EU recovery plan, both at EU and national levels, particularly focusing on high-impact infrastructure projects that will allow Europe to become a leader in global digital value chains, innovation and creativity (https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/44389/st08711-en20.pdf).
The areas covered by the conclusions, range from connectivity, digital value chains and eHealth to the data economy, artificial intelligence and digital platforms.
In relation to 5G / 6G connectivity, the EU Council points out that achieving the EU’s 2025 Gigabit connectivity objectives with secure, very high capacity infrastructures, such as fibre and 5G, requires boosting investments into networks capable of offering Gigabit speeds, available to all households, rural or urban, enterprises and other socioeconomic drivers, as well as the main European transport corridors, as a basis for the European digital economy and society.
In light of the above, it calls on the Commission and the Member States to improve investment conditions, including through public funding programmes, where necessary at European level, to support investment in very high capacity digital network infrastructure, particularly in rural areas; awarding 5G spectrum frequencies by the end of 2020, taking into consideration any delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, under predictable and investment-conducive conditions; ensuring effective and transparent processes permitting for the accelerated roll-out of very high capacity infrastructures, including fibre and 5G; and implementing on a timely basis the relevant measures in line with the 5G cybersecurity toolbox.
It also calls on the Commission to put forward a revised Action Plan for 5G and 6G supported with adequate financing measures, based on funds both from the Multiannual Financial Framework and the EU recovery fund.
Additionally, the EU Council also recognizes the importance of the data economy as a key enabler for Europe to prosper in the digital age and stresses the challenges resulting from the significant increase in the amount of data available, particularly as a result of connected objects. It also states that Europe must prioritise, in particular by providing adequate infrastructure, the merging and sharing of data.
With that in mind, it encourages the Commission to take concrete steps to facilitate the emergence of new data-driven ecosystems, and underlines that cloud infrastructure and services are important for European digital agility, sovereignty, security, research and competitiveness and thus important for Europe to benefit fully from the data economy.
Furthermore, the Council acknowledges that the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the importance of the digital transformation of health and care and its value in strengthening the resilience of health systems and their response to the pandemic.
As such, it invites the Member States to join forces in an EU-wide effort to scale up investment in, and deployment of, systems that provide secure and trusted access to health data within and across borders. In particularly, by exploring possibilities for the development of a European electronic health record exchange format that will help overcome fragmentation and lack of interoperability. Also, by supporting the actions for European guidelines and aligning eHealth strategies in the European eHealth Network, while ensuring full compliance with the specific high level requirements for the protection of personal health data.
Moreover, the EU Council encourages solutions to the management of digital identity and trust services, that will contribute to shaping the society of the future. In this context, it calls upon the Commission to consider proposals for further development of the current framework for cross-border identification and authentication.
It also highlights that the COVID-19 crisis has shown the need for fast development of online public services that allow citizens to deal with the public authorities remotely.
The EU Council further notes that the EU faces a growing demand from all sectors for employees with basic digital skills, as well as a gap of 1 million ICT professionals, which risks hampering its digital development potential. With this in mind, it calls on the Member States and the Commission to take measures to ensure that citizens have basic digital skills and to halve this current gap by 2025, taking into account Member States’ specificities.
The EU Council also recognises the importance of supercomputing, quantum technologies and cloud computing as enablers for technological sovereignty, competitiveness at a global level and a successful digital transformation, underpinning priority areas such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, Internet of Things and cybersecurity.
Regarding Artificial Intelligence, the EU Council perceives that artificial intelligence is a fast-evolving technology that can contribute to a more innovative, efficient, sustainable and competitive economy, as well as to a wide array of societal benefits.
Other areas that were discussed included cybersecurity, environmental sustainability, digital services, media policy, digital taxation and the international dimension.