digital single market needs real skills and substance to succeed
Europe is creating digital jobs, but lacks the skilled workforce to fill them. The Commission should promote the benefits of action at national level without drowning member states in red tape, writes Jamie Greene.
Jamie Greene is a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament and the Scottish Conservative spokesman on connectivity, digital economy and technology.
The Europe we live in today is vastly different from the Europe of 15 years ago. As personal computers were brushed aside by smart phones and everything from banking to food shopping switched online, the continent’s skills remained stuck in an analogue mind-set.
Europe’s growth remains sluggish; so any attempt to return to the pre-2008 levels will require an asserted and strong digital agenda to ensure that any future growth is led by technology, not merely reacting to it.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been vocal about using a digital strategy to finally end the EU’s economic woes. His flagship Digital Single Market (DSM) policy has clear merit and advantages, with gains estimated to be between €250-€415 billion by 2020, or 4% of EU GDP.
Importantly, the Commission must understand that these benefits cannot be achieved in the absence of the necessary skills to complement the infrastructure and regulatory environment.
Creating roles for software programmers without training software programmers isn’t progress. Across the EU, 28% of the population is reported to be lacking in any formal IT training.
We can draw parallels with the situation we face in Scotland today. Every year we create 11,000 digital vacancies but only manage to fill around half of them. The digital sector’s presence in our economy is set to increase dramatically but a lack of focus in Scottish education has seen graduates in critical subjects such as the sciences, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) diminish.
Empirica projected that 820,000 digital jobs could be added to the EU by 2020 but if we look at the EU’s 2016 Digital Economy and Society Index we see major economies such as France, Spain, Italy and Poland below the overall EU average.
When measured by crucial human capital (the necessary skills to take advantage of digital opportunities) the outcome remains concerning. The pool of digital talent is struggling to keep pace with increasing digitisation.
Based on the European Commission’s 2015 Digital Scoreboard, 40% of the EU population “lacked digital skills”, while 22% had no digital skills. Advanced digital skills hover around 8% across the continent and only 10% of Europeans have any experience of complex coding.
Commission Vice-President and DSM chief Andrus Ansip has acknowledged this is a “cause for concern” but despite this and despite key events such as the Riga Declaration, the digital skills gap isn’t narrowing at the necessary pace. A focus on digital education might be a step forward by individual member states to compliment the Commission’s agenda but this will be a long-term process that will likely not arrive in time for the 2020 deadline.
European institutions are capable of acting only within their remit, which at this point primarily concerns the coordination of infrastructure and the setting of regulatory regimes. Although the European executive could provide a coordinating role, it would be better suited to outlining the individual national benefits as a means of motivating member states to take action of their own accord.
A positive role the Commission could play is addressing industry concerns over the DSM such as IPR and the financial impact of geoblocking on our creative industries. For example, how will content be funded when roughly half of member states do not pay a TV or radio licence fee?
International licensing (i.e. for European football broadcasting) is a more complex task than is being portrayed and is exceedingly expensive, so why is there such little conversation around the practicalities of this?
In the world of tech, cloud and virtual markets, borders are created with software, not checkpoints, but the principles of security, sovereignty, and ownership must never be forgotten.
So far these concerns have been brushed aside by Commissioners Ansip and Günther Oettinger without any real attention to the potential impacts this could have on broadcasters, data merchants and IP owners.
Ensuring the industry has enough flexibility to thrive is also crucial. The European Commission may want to tear down technical barriers, but if it insists on adopting the common European approach of over-regulation, it risks suffocating Europe’s digital industry in red tape.
With 2020 only three years away, a renewed focus on digital is an immediate necessity if any progress is to be made with digitising the continent. The UK government has just announced a massive digital infrastructure investment package in its Autumn Statement with some projections suggesting £13 billion could be added to the Scottish economy alone. National capitals might consider following this example.
Brexit or no Brexit, the virtual markets of the world will continue to exist and consumers’ thirst for products and services will only grow.
The DSM cannot be achieved simply through the offices in the Berlaymont in Brussels, nor through the German Chancellery Office. It will be created through classrooms, universities and training facilities at the national, regional and local levels. If Europe is serious about regaining the digital initiative, it will need to embark on an ambitious education of its digital workforce.
commission launches youth volunteer 'solidarity' corps
European? Aged 18-30? Unemployed? Want to work abroad for pocket money? The EU’s new Solidarity Corps may be for you.
Would-be recruits and campaigners on youth issues offered a wary welcome on Wednesday (8 December) to the European Commission’s launch of a scheme to give 100,000 people a chance to work elsewhere in Europe for up to year, either as volunteers or paid trainees.
With mass unemployment among the young helping to fuel a crisis for the European Union, where eurosceptic nationalists have been fired up by Britain’s vote to leave and public concerns about immigration, the Commission hopes the Corps can foster cross-border solidarity and positive views of the EU.
Launching a recruitment drive, complete with baseball caps, T-shirts and signing-on forms in a tent outside the Commission’s Brussels headquarters, outgoing Vice President Kristalina Georgieva called it a chance to help “our young people do what you are best at – excite the rest of us about the unity of Europe”.
Allan Pall, Secretary General of the European Youth Forum, said he was concerned about running down funding for much larger programmes: “Volunteering develops skills in an amazing way,” he said. “But it’s perhaps not the most effective answer now.”
Volunteers will have travel and insurance costs covered, as well as living expenses and “pocket money”, while those who find intern and apprentice roles would have appropriate wages.
Some 4.2 million EU citizens under 25 have no job – more than two in five young Greeks and Spaniards and one young Italian in three.
Brando Benifei, a 30-year-old Italian centre-left EU lawmaker, said other types of effort were needed.
“These instruments are useful to mobilise young people … to develop a European identity,” he said. “To create jobs, we need stronger economies, we need growth, we need investments.”
But for Roxane Van Lerberge, 25 from Brussels, who stopped by the launch from her traineeship in an EU office, the European Solidarity Corps seemed at least intriguing.
“It’s a wonderful idea because of youth unemployment. It can add one more skill on your CV,” she said. “I would look for something social.”
eu champions 'people power' but devil lies in the detail
The European Commission’s Winter Package of energy proposals, unveiled yesterday (30 November), is set to boost household and local power generation, but obstacles remain.
Initial reactions to a raft of draft legislation presented on Wednesday include widespread support for plans to give citizens the right to generate and sell their own green electricity.
The EU executive promised to put consumers in the driving seat of a revolution in the way electricity is produced, traded and consumed across Europe.
“Consumers and communities will be empowered to actively participate in the electricity market and generate their own electricity, consume it or sell it back to the market,” the Commission said in a briefing noteaccompanying its Winter Package of energy laws, part of EU plans for an Energy Union.
However, the devil in the detail suggests hopes of a rapid decommissioning of large coal-fired and nuclear power plants in favour of millions of self-generating, green “energy citizens” may be premature.
“One of the most productive areas of the package is the opening it offers to demand side response and the right of consumers to self-generate and consume,” said Manon Dufour, who heads the Brussels office of climate and energy think-tank E3G.
The potential for households and local cooperatives to supply a major part of Europe’s power from solar and wind installations could be huge. A recentstudyestimated that “energy citizens” could meet 19% of overall electricity demand by 2030, and 45% by 2050.
SolarPower Europe, the trade association lobbying for the technology most widely deployed for self-generation, declared itself “delighted” that renewable self-consumers would be recognised at EU level.
A legally binding framework would give households the right to generate, consume, store and sell their own power, policy director Alexandre Roesch said.
“Spain is the worst example we have currently,” Roesch said of a law preventing remuneration for electricity fed into the grid by those who generate their own. Questions over national issues such as grid and distribution tariffs could also be dealt with under rules to be drafted by a proposed EU body made up of distribution firms, he added.
Nevertheless, with the Commission pushing to phase out direct support for renewables and increase the exposure of consumers to wholesale prices, it looks likely that even the smallest producers will have to compete on the open market in order to sell their surplus electricity.
Support schemes are one of the main reasons that householders bother to invest in solar energy in the first place, according to the Brussels-based European consumer organisation BEUC. Rolling back renewable support schemes won’t help in that regard, BEUC said.
“A family running a solar panel is not an energy trader, and cannot compete with large energy companies,” BEUC spokesman Sébastien Pant said.
Moreover, the Commission’s plans would also limit the scope for larger-scale local production via renewable energy cooperatives. According to environmental group Greenpeace, such schemes would be limited to installing 18 MW or less per year of generation capacity.
The organisation representing green energy cooperatives in Europe, REScoop.eu, cautiously welcomed the recognition the proposals give to such initiatives – with a call for member states to limit “disproportionate procedure and charges” – but voiced concern over the proposed cap.
“The illustration behind Commissioners Cañete and Šefčovič at the press conference showed the cooperative wind farm at Middelgrunden…and that’s very nice,” the group’s president Dirk Vansintjan said, referring to a 40 MW project in Denmark.
“But we want to have a framework of EU directive and implementation in member states that allows citizens of all 28 to do the same as the citizens of Copenhagen,” Vansintjan said.
‘Puzzling contradiction’ on renewables
Beyond the technicalities of grid access and subsidies for small producers of green power lies what some see as the main inconsistency within the electricity market reforms contained in the Winter Package of proposals, part of the EU’s Energy Union strategy.
Despite its championing the new role of citizens as active players in the electricity market and commitment to increasing the deployment of renewable power, some perceive a reluctance on the part of the EU executive to press for the closure of large conventional power plants.
E3G’s Dufour spoke of a “puzzling contradiction” in the Commission’s approach to coal subsidies and its treatment of renewables.
“It is difficult to grasp how the EU will become ‘number one in renewables’ when the same package strikes the rule giving priority to renewable energy and prolongs capacity payments to ailing coal plants,” she said.
Greenpeace was quick to dismiss the package as a “lifeline to coal” thanks to its enabling of “capacity mechanisms” – schemes that allow generators to keep otherwise unprofitable coal, gas or nuclear power plants on line in the interests of energy security.
But Friends of the Earth Europe, another environmental NGO, saw the Commission’s plans in a more positive light.
“Seeing citizens placed at the heart of the energy transition is a beacon of hope amongst an otherwise gloomy, fossil-fuel-heavy package,” said Molly Walsh, community power campaigner at the environmental organisation.
“The European Commission has recognised the benefits of community-owned renewables and cooperatives,” she said, adding she sees the move as insufficient in light of efforts needed to keep global warming below 2°C.
Europe as a whole currently has more generation capacity than it needs, one often cited reason that wholesale prices have hit rock bottom and investment has stalled.
Greenpeace EU energy policy adviser Tara Connolly described the proposals as a “technocratic fudge” resulting from pressure by national governments urged on by large energy firms.
“A lot of progress could be blocked by the failure to address the issue of overcapacity, and extending the life of plants beyond the point were they should have been shut down,” Connolly said.
SolarPower Europe’s Roesch spoke of a “battle between the current incumbent fleet and new entrants” in the power generation sector. “The more solar power penetrates the market, the more we risk hitting a glass ceiling,” he said, warning that renewables output could have to be curtailed.
The battle is set to continue next week as EU member states hold their first talks on the new proposals at an Energy Council meeting on 5 December. The European Parliament is expected to start divvying its work up between committees and appointing rapporteurs straight after the Christmas break.
Households and neighbourhoods feeding small-scale electricity and heat into a decentralised European energy grid: this is the vision developed by proponents of microgeneration. Yet at present, the EU's energy system remains centralised and dominated by large power plants.
The term 'microgeneration' refers to an array of small and medium-sized generators of electricity, including solar, wind, hydro, biomass and waste. Also included in the scope of microgeneration are combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration facilities, which feed the heat produced during electricity generation either directly into homes or into a local district heat and power network.
Proponents of microgeneration – also known as distributed or decentralised generation – argue that a decentralised energy market is a prerequisite for achieving the EU's renewable energy and energy efficiency goals. But they lament that significant obstacles block their ability to compete with larger power producers.
In addition, EU member states have different rules in place governing grid access for smaller producers, which the microgeneration industry says acts as a barrier to the development of an EU-wide market for small-scale power generation. At the moment, the EU's microgeneration market remains rather small.
- 5 December: EU energy ministers hold first exchange of views on Winter Package at Energy Council meeting in Brussels