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The EESC warns the Commission: digitalisation must be inclusive

The Digital Europe programme put together by the Commission takes a step in the right direction by recognising the key role played by digital skills, but it could be more closely tied to social realities. In its opinion drawn up by Norbert Kluge and Ulrich Samm and adopted at the October plenary session, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) backs the Commission proposal and points out that digitalisation in Europe must be made inclusive: the "digital dividend" must be equally distributed through appropriate policy measures.

In June 2018 the European Commission presented the Digital Europe programme for the period 2021‑2027, with a view to making Europe a leading player in digitalisation and increasing its economic strength and competitiveness on the world stage. The aim of the proposal is to establish a digital single market so that everyone in Europe can benefit from the digital transformation.

  • Inclusive digitalisation

The EESC supports the programme but would like it to be more closely tied to social realities. As digitalisation affects all people and all areas of life, it is of the utmost importance that everyone in the EU can benefit from it, said Mr Kluge. Digitalisation in Europe has to be made inclusive, he continued. People must not be excluded from digital progress on account of factors like gender, social status, education level, skills, digital capabilities, origin, age or disability.

The resultant "digital dividend" must be distributed fairly by means of appropriate policy measures and it must not only benefit a small number of stakeholders. The programme should also be implemented through measures that take account of the principle that in the EU individuals are the owners of their data and will remain so.

  • Digital skills are key

Digital knowledge and skills are essential and have been recognised as a key element in the programme. It is very important to help businesses, workers and consumers to acquire and use both basic and advanced digital technologies, as this will impact on the quantity, quality and competitiveness of jobs in Europe. Investment in digital skills should aim "to empower and enable all Europeans" (conclusions of the European Council of 19 October 2017).

The EESC therefore supports the European Parliament's proposal to increase the budget for promoting digital skills from EUR 700 million (7.6% of the total budget) to EUR 830 million (9% of the total budget). Training could be provided through digital innovation hubs, to be set up on the ground in the regions, which will serve as access points to the latest digital capacities. We welcome a European label of excellence for digital innovation hubs to favour interconnections and ensure that high-level and advanced digital skills, but also basic capacities, are provided, underlined Mr Samm.

  • Focus on promoting R&D

The programme places great value on the promotion of research and development, as skilled and capable researchers are among the drivers of social and economic development. The Committee agrees with this approach and, in order to ensure that the results and findings are disseminated and benefit all EU citizens, it proposes stepping up dialogue between researchers, the social partners and civil society organisations. Complex issues must be presented in such a way that they can be understood and followed by non-experts.

  • Added value at European level

The Digital Europe programme also allows stakeholders to join forces and create added value at EU level in areas where individual countries cannot achieve much on their own. For example, in relation to cybersecurity, it encourages the development of joint methods and strategies to combat cyber-attacks originating outside Europe and establishing an independent European microchip industry.

  • Keeping to ethics

Lastly, the EESC is of the view that specific ethical principles should always be observed in any and all activity under the programme. The principle that a person must always retain control of the machine ("human in command") should always be enforced, especially when applying artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace. On this basis, further statutory measures should be put together, in relation to issues like liability or data protection, as well as worker and consumer protection. The further digitalisation of our society will only be successful if appropriate cultural and legislative measures to sensitise people to benefits and risks are promoted.

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