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Dace Melbarde MEP

Education as a the main element of the EU’s digital compass

Digital is everywhere around us, but not to the same extent. While there is a plethora of various social media platforms and apps, not everyone in the EU has access to key public, let alone private services online. The use of digital ID may be widespread in some Member States, but as a whole only about 60 percent of the EU population are able to use theirs cross-border. Just 14 Member States have notified at least one eID scheme.

The Commission’s target, as part of the 2030 Digital Compass, envisages that all key public services must be online, while 80 percent of the EU citizens should use an eID solution by the end of the decade. The proposal on European Digital Identity, which I am currently working on as a shadow rapporteur in the Parliament’s Industry (ITRE) committee, aims to ensure the above targets materialise. Among other elements, the eID proposal puts forward the creation of the European Digital Identity Wallet that will act as an effective alternative to the services and products that tech companies to some extent already offer. And, more broadly, there is an implicit attempt to counter the rising influence of the private sector. However, coming from a country where electronic identification schemes have been running for years I can attest it was thanks to, not because of private sector that the successful uptake was ensured. This is not to say that the EU must not do anything. Rather, we must devise a productive way on how to work with the private sector; the role and importance of public-private partnerships must not be overlooked or undermined.

The EU’s digital transformation by 2030 also foresees the creation of “secure and sustainable” digital infrastructures, with the recently announced European Chips Act as one of the cornerstones of that aim. Thanks to the Act, the Commission reasons, the EU will double its current semiconductor market share to 20 percent within this decade. Still, it remains to be seen whether this is truly achievable. Even if there are no other roadblocks, the proposed funding — EUR 43 billion of public and private money over years — is likely not sufficient, given the many boxes the Act aims to tick. The subsidy and funding race is already a reality and it is no secret that the likes of China and the United States are not sitting idle. They will outspend the block by a significant amount, and hence at least partly undermine the EU’s ambitions.

The less thrilling, but arguably most important pillar of the EU’s digital compass is the skills part which entails that 80 percent of the EU population should have basic digital skills by 2030. At the moment, just over half of the EU citizens (56 percent) have such skills. This average, however, masks the vast divergences between — and within — the Member States. For example, in the Netherlands the relevant number stood at 79 percent in 2019, whereas in many Eastern EU countries only a third of population have basic digital skills. Young people are faring better as 4 out of 5 aged between ages 16 and 24 have the necessary digital skills. Yet even among this age group, the discrepancy between the countries remains vast.

Even if the 80 percent basic digital skills target is reached by the end of the decade, it is paramount that not only the EU as a whole, but each Member State is making significant progress. Indeed, going digital is not merely a nice to have option, but a vital necessity for everyone who wants to continue being an active member of the society. Nor will the EU succeed in successfully fulfilling the other digital decades priorities, if a significant share of the population remains offline.

Fortunately, a lot can be done. As a shadow rapporteur in Culture and Education committee (CULT) for the opinion on the aforementioned path to digital decade, I stress the importance of addressing the digital divide in a way that acknowledges the effort and particular situation of each Member State. The progress made by each country is as relevant as the average EU targets and, more importantly, we cannot let the latter mask, let alone exacerbate the existing divergences. Among other solutions, the EU through a lifelong learning approach must supercharge individualised approach to upskilling and reskilling. Learning new skills, digital or other, must become truly accessible to everyone everywhere.

More broadly, education and research is indeed one of the competitive advantages that the EU as a whole possesses. From excellent student exchanges and Erasmus+ programme as well as world class universities to research excellence, also thanks to Horizon Europe. In short, both the EU as a whole as well as Member States individually must capitalise and double down on areas at which we are already among the best. This also entails more aggressively tackling the early school leaving problem as well as encouraging more of our youth to study STEM subjects and successfully compete higher education studies. The European Education Area is a good start on which to continue building. Yet, as with all objectives, there is eventually a need for more funding. Unlike other areas, investment in education has had a steady return over decades, at both individual and societal level. If education objectives of the digital compass are comprehensively fulfilled, everything else will follow. Nevertheless, education must come first.