Going Digital: Linking the EU with Its Eastern Neighbours

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

The Eastern Partnership has come a long way since it was launched at the Prague Summit six years ago. I remember the occasion well: I was present at the time in a different capacity, representing Estonia. A great deal has happened during that period. The progress has been almost unbelievable:

1. Association agreements with the European Union.

2. Visa agreements to ease the movement of people between countries.

3. Stronger cooperation with the EU in state-building and the rule of law.

4. Financial and technical cooperation in transport and energy: new international electricity and gas connections.

The list goes on – there is much, much more.

Last month’s Fourth Eastern Partnership summit in Riga was a milestone in our relationship. It reaffirmed our common interest to carry on developing stronger and closer relations with each of our sovereign independent partners. Now the turn of the digital economy has arrived. This is a whole new area of cooperation.

As European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, I am particularly pleased to be involved in developing and promoting this key element of our relationship. The digital economy can contribute to all the priority areas identified at Riga:

– strengthening institutions and good governance;

– mobility and people-to-people contacts;

– market opportunities and interconnections.

It plays a vital role in social and economic development and in creating growth and jobs – for all countries involved. Integrating our digital economies will bring our Eastern European partners closer to the European Union. In Europe, we have built a single market where people, business, services and goods can move freely. It has brought great rewards and prosperity to our people, society and economy.

But it is a long way from being fully digital – and so Europe is losing out on the enormous potential that a digital economy can bring. This is not yet being fully exploited, either in EU or Eastern Partnership countries. In the EU today, online barriers mean that people are missing out on goods and services:

Only 15% shop online from another EU country. Internet companies and web start-ups cannot take full advantage of growth opportunities online. Just 7% of small and medium-sized businesses sell across EU borders. These are just a few examples.

A fully functional Digital Single Market could contribute €415 billion per year to our €14 trillion economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

First, however, these and other regulatory barriers have to be removed so that we can move from 28 national markets to a single one. That is the main objective of our project to build a Digital Single Market. It is one of the top priorities of this European Commission. It contains a series of initiatives based around three main policy pillars:

– to improve access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe;

– to make sure there is high-quality infrastructure that works smoothly across Europe. We also need to create the right and fair conditions in the underlying environment;

– to prepare for the future, to maximise the growth potential of the digital economy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Closer digital integration offers great potential for trade growth and wider economic cooperation – for all of us. The 75 million consumers of the six partner countries can also enjoy the potential of the Digital Single Market to bring economic growth, to generate more jobs, to improve their people’s lives and help businesses.

However, if we are to build a wider European digital market – beyond EU borders – it must be one where everyone operates under the same rules. I welcome the move to set up a panel for harmonising digital markets, which builds on an initiative from Belarus and is supported by several EU countries.

It will be a good first step in this direction. If all goes well, the panel could hold its first meeting already this year. The economic impact of fully aligning digital markets cannot be underestimated.

When put together with other elements of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, annual growth in Moldova should rise by 5.4%, or by €142 million. In Georgia, the impact on growth has been estimated at 4.3% – the equivalent of €292 million.

We already have some digital success stories to tell. Three years after it was set up, the Eastern Partnership network of regulators for electronic communications is now a regional forum for exchange of experience and best practice between partner countries and the EU. It has led to significant regulatory reforms by the partners, some of which have come about thanks to adopting EU legislation.

Another important success I wish to mention is EaP-Connect. When it is completed, this project will allow the research and academic communities of the six partner countries to work together in virtual networks with their EU opposite numbers. Later today, we will witness the signing of this project contract, which is worth €13.7 million with 95% funding from the European Commission.

It is success stories such as these, our common needs and shared vision that bring us together today. There is much that we can achieve together as we work towards digital convergence between our two regions.

As we do this, however, we must maintain and develop the openness of the European market: all companies, regardless of their origin, should be able to compete and trade on an equal footing.

The EU will continue to press for the same openness and effective enforcement of intellectual property rights from our trading partners. Issues such as cybersecurity, trust in online activities, public sector modernisation and digital skills are all essential for fulfilling our digital objectives. No online barriers, no discrimination. Full access, with trust and protection of digital content.

These principles are fundamental for our Digital Single Market Strategy. They also work equally well anywhere in the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by quoting President Tusk, the President of the European Council, with some remarks he made after last month’s Riga summit.

President Tusk said that our partnership is not about dramatic decisions or taking giant steps forward. It is based on free will, respect and equality – and will go forward step by step, just as the European Union has been built. I agree wholeheartedly.

Given the history of my own country, I hold the concept and aspirations of the Eastern Partnership close to my heart and follow its progress closely.

It is in everyone’s interests, on all sides, for the Eastern Partnership countries to build stronger EU ties, whether in transport, energy or in aligning digital markets – the next stage of our cooperation, which starts today.

In the EU, we have started to build a strong digital economy. Let us work together now to extend it to the Eastern Partnership.

Source: europa.eu


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,