Is Europe’s crisis a denial of the European model? I would argue it is not the case. The crisis must be an incentive for Europe to modernise its model and adjust it to a globalised and competitive multipolar scenario, without renouncing its welfare state.
To achieve this goal, in 2010 the European Commission launched the Europe 2020 Strategy, with the Digital Agenda (DA) as one of its flagships, setting out to define the key role of information and communication technologies.
In this context, the key phrase is Digital Single Market.
Too many barriers continue to block online services and entertainment across member states and the Digital Agenda can update EU Single Market rules for the digital era.
For us at the European Economic and Social Committee, the main objective is to place the citizen at the heart of an inclusive digital internal market.
The four basic freedoms of the Single Market: capital, people, products and services can be improved through the new ICT and benefit European citizens. A series of actions have to be taken in three main fields.
First of all, every citizen must have equal access to the network.
Here the consumer has to be protected with concrete measures like setting a maximum price per Mbps. Furthermore, infrastructure ensuring full coverage of the whole European territory should be put in place. But people also have to have the means to connect to the internet, so we should encourage the production of basic hardware, manufactured in Europe at a genuinely affordable price.
The second field is trust, a key issue, especially if we consider that only 12 per cent of European web users feel completely safe making online transactions. To this end, policy, legislation and international cooperation have to raise the level of consumer protection.
Third, education has to play a key role in the implementation of the Digital Agenda, not only with projects such as digital schools, with a move towards more digitalised administration and teaching, but also extending it to the older generations.
Still, 30 per cent of Europeans have never used the internet!
Considering that increasing amounts of daily tasks are being carried out online, digital skills are a must if we don’t want to create a digital divide.
I could hardly finish without mentioning the importance of including SMEs in the Digital Agenda. Let us not forget that the EU’s 23 million SMEs make up 99 per cent of businesses.
The Enterprise Europe Network was created to support European SMEs in accessing new markets, EU funds and new technologies. Many barriers in the Single Market are especially harmful to SMEs but they can take advantage of their flexibility in using the new technologies to overcome linguistic or legislative obstacles and to advertise their products and services in other member states. If European SMEs are able to take a step forward and become truly digital, this will have a direct impact on Europe’s competitiveness.
Civil society representatives need to stand up against the pessimism arising in Europe due to the current crisis.
I firmly believe that the Single Market is the EU’s best weapon in fighting the crisis and every policy that tries to make it work better needs to be implemented. There is no doubt in these troubled times that if the Digital Agenda succeeds, the European economic and social model will be closer to confirming its validity.
Anna Maria Darmanin is vice president of the European Economic and Social Committee
This article was first published in The Times of the 25th July 2012.