The EU's Digital Agenda, Beyond 2024: What's Next?
As the current mandate of the European Commission comes to an end, more than one observer has started to reflect on the progress made in the digital policy arena over the past 4-5 years and to identify the priorities that should appear in that chapter of the next Commission's agenda.
The European Union (EU) has made significant progress in digital policy through initiatives such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Digital Single Market Strategy. The European Commission has since proposed various other legislations and frameworks to regulate online platforms, data governance, and artificial intelligence (AI). Looking to the future, the next Commission should build on these achievements and focus on several key priorities.
Privacy as a fundamental value by EU standards must now be coupled with the imperatives of competitiveness and innovation. Their combination is far from incompatible – it does require skilful regulation and a shift in mindset: the innovation principle can be a reliable guide in the digital era.
On the competitiveness of digital markets, the EU has explored ways to address the dominance of large tech (essentially U.S.) companies, particularly platforms, to ensure a so-called 'level playing field' for European companies (generally smaller). The Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) adopted last year are unprecedented legislations that have propelled the EU as a rule-maker in the digital economy. How the EU will manage to implement and enforce these laws is now a work in progress. Will the available resources suffice to give those new rules enough teeth? Proper implementation and the correct allocation of expertise will be essential to avoid a growing divergence between EU and non-EU markets, specifically in how companies can innovate, use data, and grow. This could otherwise further widen the gap with other markets and make it harder for the EU to compete on a global level.
The EU should ensure that the next mandate's priorities aren't about obsessing over business models we've failed to develop, such as large business-to-consumer platforms, often referred to as 'Big Tech'. The biggest issue we are facing is innovation made in Europe. Europe was the previous generation's world champion, with the great inventions of mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering as the backbone of our economy. But it is now lagging in a whole array of 21st-century technologies. Europe is home no longer a representative of the world's top ten digital companies. The UK, London in particular, remains Europe's most attractive tech hub for investment, thanks to high-growth companies, a focus on innovation policies and a vibrant start-up scene, but it is no longer part of the EU.
Therefore, we now need to put our money where our mouth is. The European Commission has rightly pushed to enhance investment in green, 'clean' technologies and deep tech start-ups – technologies where the EU has strength and potential and which can address global challenges. We have incumbent assets in fundamental research, disruptive technologies, synthetic biology, robotics, drones, and quantum computing.
To be sure, the next Commission is expected to – and will likely – continue its work on immersive (XR) technologies (touted as 'Virtual Worlds Initiative'), looking at whether its current frameworks are well equipped to deal with those and with the environments in which they are embedded, such as the Metaverse(s). But rather than envisaging even more rules, the next Commission should ensure the EU is not getting ahead of itself or betting on what might be a 'hyped' horse. Indeed, for those environments to materialise and for their technologies to be widely and realistically adopted in the form of applications for people, the public administration, and companies, we first need stronger connectivity infrastructure, high-performing AI, more computing power, and digitised and digitalised businesses. In short, we first need to reach our Digital Decade 2030 goals – and we are not there yet.
The next mandate's agenda should enhance the conditions of what will make Europe an enabling environment in which digital champions, entrepreneurs, and innovators can blossom and in which investors are more eager to invest. It is still not easy to find funding in Europe, and the digital single market remains, in many respects, a political theory. The Digital Single Market Strategy may still be the key to developing a digital economy and a powerful digital market in Europe – but that key has many more doors to unlock.
To this end, the most major progress the EU digital policy needs to be robust and credible in the long term is to cut the red tape accumulated in recent years. The next Commission's mandate should be about truly upholding the Better Regulation principle: 'one in, one out' instead of 'five in, one out.'
The next mandate will have to deal with many diverse existing, recently adopted, or set-to-pass legislations relevant to digital policy. Policies have led to regulatory convergence being reversed, with more legal uncertainty and extra layers of regulations. The business community – including Europe's most prominent companies – has sent many signals that its stakeholders can no longer cope, such as Business Europe, who recently alarmed the EU in a letter to Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen and MEDEF, the French entrepreneurial movement.
The EU should take a hard look at this cluttered regulatory landscape and rework it into a predictable, stable, and coherent framework. It should aim to guarantee more alignment among all these initiatives to avoid overlapping and conflicting rules that create an inconsistent patchwork, put enforcement at risk, and overwhelm businesses with legal uncertainty. Before pushing for more, it should ensure its existing rules take root, bear fruit, and reach its intended goals. If the EU lacks resources to ensure the proper enforcement and navigation of its own rules, it is because our regulatory landscape has become too complex. Companies might comply with one rule, but that could very well mean they're breaking another. Inconsistent regulation could fuel new challenges for the development and evolution of other unforeseen technologies.
Moreover, several EU legislations adopted in the current mandate will likely have to be adjusted in the next one. Issues such as intellectual property and AI will emerge or become more pressing, especially for the creative sector. Regulatory progress will likely be needed on emerging uses of technologies, as seen with ChatGPT (so-called generative AI systems) and its relevance to the AI Act.
The EU should ensure that it avoids going too far, pushing ahead with many other areas where everything should be regulated. These risks complicate things further, making our laws harder to adapt.
Generally, EU digital policy would benefit from greater coordination and synchronisation in the years ahead. This holds true for the collaboration among EU Member States and national sectoral authorities: So they can be empowered in implementing and enforcing rules.
The EU must eventually solve the fragmentation issue through harmonised enforcement of its various frameworks and more consistency and visibility among all its instruments and programs.
Survival in the digital era means having a strategy backed with enough funding – public and private. We must find a financing model/paradigm for the huge investments needed. Delivering the digital single market and the capital market union in the next mandate would be a significant step toward facilitating businesses' growth, innovation, and investments in our businesses. Accelerating and facilitating access to funding, streamlining existing EU funding, and targeting them toward mature technologies, clean tech, and cutting-edge technologies like deep tech would also make sense in the fiercely competitive, fast-paced digital environment. Easier access to visas for highly skilled individuals could help attract and retain the talent our companies struggle to hire. Furthermore, coordinated stock options policies could be of great use. The list of practical target actions goes on.
To unlock funding, another key aspect not to neglect will be the dialogue with industry and, more broadly, between public and private stakeholders. As no money can buy everything needed to build self-sufficiency in strategic technologies, the EU will need to further develop existing partnerships with like-minded countries and forge new alliances with trade partners. This is essential if the EU wants to set authoritative, realistic, globally recognised standards (sometimes its own, sometimes those of others) and ensure open trade continues to drive the resilience of tech supply chains.
Another area for the next mandate to tackle includes education and digital skills, as well as the inclusiveness and accessibility of digital technologies – across EU countries, regions, remote and rural areas, across generations, across all layers of society. Those may not be the most popular, given the results of relevant policies are never immediate. Still, they are critical for the EU to successfully pursue its digital policy agenda and reach its 2030 goals. Addressing all digital divides will be vital to ensuring the benefits of the digital economy and wealth are fairly spread and that European societal stability is preserved.
The EU's digital policy agenda for the next few years must continue prioritising digital policy and build on the progress made in the last mandate. There are many signs that this is, by large, unfinished business.
Owing to a geopolitical and economic context that has shed light on what are seen as more urgent priorities, the next Commission should not lose sight of its digital agenda. It might have taken a backseat as the war in Ukraine and post-COVID-19 economic uncertainties are top of mind – quite understandably. And yet, Europeans support a strong European digital agenda. Surveys such as Eurobarometer have shown that most EU respondents think the Internet and digital tools will play an important role in the future. Most find it useful for the European Commission to define and promote a common European vision of European digital rights and principles, to ensure a successful and fair digital transformation. Cybercrime is a key concern for many SMEs. Technology and science are generally seen as having a positive effect in the future – such as by making a difference in health and medical care and in the fight against climate change.
It is with a powerful digital economy, competitive businesses, and meaningful leadership in the tech race that the EU will be able to achieve what democratic, wealthy nations aim to provide to their citizens: Prosperity, social stability, and confidence in a future where Europeans can take on the world's global challenges. What else should the next European Commission be reaching for?
* Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or EACEA. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.