by Robert Madelin, Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology
For decades, the single market has delivered new rights and opportunities to European citizens and businesses. The right to travel, live or study abroad. The right to benefit from the best goods and services the EU has to offer, wherever they originate. The right for businesses to enjoy a world of opportunity, trading and transacting beyond borders – selling to a potential market of hundreds of millions of people.
But increasingly our lives are going digital. All kinds of new activities are going online. From entertainment to healthcare, broadband networks offer a new platform and a new boost for any kind of business. New initiatives like cloud computing or big data allow companies in all sectors to benefit from high-quality, flexible services; and increase their productivity across the board.
Indeed this new online platform is a particular boon for the most dynamic, smaller businesses. Because the online world offers much lower barriers to entry, and much higher capacity for innovation, many European innovators and entrepreneurs are using it successfully to spread new ideas. As David Cameron himself put it – the digital sector is one of the engines of a modern economy.
But as much economic activity goes online – the risk is that we rediscover the borders we have spent decades trying to bring down in the offline, “real” world. In effect taking away from the freedoms that the EU single market is supposed to safeguard.
It’s all well and good to have the right to bid for foreign government contracts – but what if, in practice, you have to use paper, pen and postal services to do so across the border — and the time and burden then become prohibitive? Online, it’s easy to buy or sell physical CDs or books across borders – but often you cannot do so for their digital equivalents, like MP3s or eBooks – because of copyright rules or “geoblocking” (preventing online content from being viewed in particular member states, for legal or commercial reasons). And while it’s a boon for businessespeople to easily travel: often they find high roaming charges mean those trips become a lot more expensive; or alternatively, they just switch their phone off and lose all contacts and connectivity for the duration.
As the world goes online, such barriers are an increasing obstacle to our economy. Especially for those businesses looking to innovate and expand across borders. Online, distance should not be a barrier; we should ensure our legal framework is not a barrier, either.
Over the last five years, the EU has taken significant steps to bring these barriers down. All Europeans now have at least basic broadband. New EU rules make it easier, for example , to sign a contract or take part in public procurement online across borders, thanks to the new Regulation on e-Identification and Trust Services. EU regulations have brought down the cost of roaming significantly – and stand to go even further. A cloud computing strategy will ensure more trust and more consistent standards across the EU for this promising new technology. And so on.
But there is further to go. The European Council has underlined the urgency of delivering the digital single market by 2015 at the latest. Indeed, the benefits of such a digital single market could amount to over 4% of EU GDP; an economic impact at least as big as that of the 1992 programme which created Europe’s Internal Market for goods in the first place.
And the response of the incoming Juncker Commission has been clear: Europe needs a digital single market, not least for the benefit of every innovative and growing business. The incoming Commission have already been clear – for example – that copyright rules need reform; and that geoblocking runs contrary to the core principles of a single market. With a Vice President specifically in charge of creating that digital single market, we are well placed to take Europe into the digital 21st century.