Whether you are still under some form of lockdown or are slowly emerging from your shell (with mask and hand sanitiser), it is clear COVID-19 has created a new reality for us all. And as things stand now, let’s do a recap on what that means for digital policy in Europe.

As the European Commission keeps repeating, the digital strategy remains a top priority for this year and next, regardless of COVID-19. Or is it because of COVID-19? Technology has been paramount in fighting this pandemic and continues to be so: from the 3D printing that filled gaps of essential equipment needed in hospitals, to AI algorithms to predict disease patterns, cloud platforms for scientific research to be shared globally and tracing apps which may be instrumental in our attempt to bring back normal life. And even though digital policy will remain central to the European Commission’s agenda, the focus might have shifted a bit.

Connectivity has become the cornerstone helping keep our economy going under lockdown. And the Commission took notice. Europe is trying to debunk the attacks against 5G masts and personnel, while encouraging member states to get their 5G spectrum sales done by the end of the year. And public funding is being made available to encourage WIFI infrastructure across Europe, especially in poorer or remote areas.

The adjusted work programme of 2020 released this week by the European Commission shows that most digital timelines announced in February remain relatively unchanged. With the follow-up on the AI White Paper moved by one quarter to Q1 2021 and the data legislative proposals on track, legislators still want to keep digital as a priority while making sure stakeholders have time to readjust and reassess under the new circumstances.

But it has become increasingly apparent that the upcoming legislative initiatives linked to these strategies will be radically different than initially envisaged. Especially when it comes to big data and machine learning, Europe seems to be jumping into hyper-speed. Why? Companies across Europe have learned from COVID-19 that their supply chains are too weak and overdependent. As Commissioner for internal market Thierry Breton recently stated in the European Parliament:

“We do not want to become a closed continent but do not want to be naïve either” 

and [we] need to bring back certain essential goods and services. So, as member states and industry are sketching out their plans to shift back some of their plants and production sites to Europe, automation, machine-generated data analytics and AI tools to predict supply line changes are key. The sectoral data spaces as well as the B2G and B2B data-sharing legislations could be a great asset to those efforts depending on how they will be put forward by the EU – and could give more insights into how industry’s role is envisioned by the Commission.

If Europe wants to gain back some of its outsourced commodities as well as boosting an economy heading into recession, digitisation can help optimise production and reduce production costs. The EU recovery plan for boosting the post-crisis economy will include a substantial digital emphasis for that same reason. The Digital Europe programme and the Connecting Europe Facility programme have received extra funding and will focus on increasing Europe’s digital infrastructure and strengthen its digital capacity and capability on all fronts. If these digital efforts could be paired with an upcoming Digital Service Act geared towards getting more pan-European e-commerce in a trusted environment, Europe’s digital future could look quite rosy indeed.

As we dream of a holiday in Europe – with 5m distancing at the beach and pick-up only for your favourite drink at the bar – track-and-trace applications might have to be part of those vacation plans. In order to contain the virus and yet enjoy some freedom of movement within the EU, ideas like immunity passports and tracing apps are not too far-fetched, even if they are a work in progress.  The Commission already issued its set of recommendations on what those apps should look like, and platforms are adapting to allow these applications to function. But with GDPR having just turned two last week, privacy considerations are top of mind. The EU could find itself having to choose between the health and safety of citizens and the values of privacy and anonymity. And as the Commission mulls over these complex issues, facing an unprecedented crisis of unknown unknowns, we should not forget about how privacy can be guaranteed across EU borders with the looming ECJ Schrems II judgment in mid-July potentially impacting data flows across the Atlantic and worldwide. As our data travels more than we do right now, our privacy guarantees must follow with them.

Even with confinement and the altered Commission work programme, things are moving forward in the digital policy sphere. Just not all in the same direction as we thought when 2020 began.

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