Europe's digital commissioner goes out attacking political leaders failures

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 22, 2014
Summary:
Europe's Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes steps down next week. Is it too late for us to come to some kind of understanding? Probably, but she's going out in style.

Regular readers will by now have realized that I do not see eye to eye with Neelie Kroes on many things, to say the least.

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But as she steps down next week as Commissioner for the Digital Agenda at the European Commission, I find myself almost agreeing with her as she delivers her parting shots to Europe's political leaders on the continent's failure to get its digital act together.

She declaims:

I am very worried that Europe is missing large parts of the digital opportunity.

I am worried that Europe will continue to stagnate, that we will let look at success stories but let them pass by.

We have made some great progress in the last 5 years, but I am sad to say that Europe is not yet fully ready and able to use that new mind-set.

While applauding the fact that Europe is now a continent where 70% of citizens go online at least once a week, she chides:

We are lying to ourselves if we just give ourselves applause for this.

By now it should be clear that this is not going to be a valedictory good bye speech celebrating the digital achievements of Europe.

This is more along the lines of 'You're all going to be sorry you didn't listen!', underpinned by a hint of that all-too-common-in-Brussels simmering resentment of the US technology industry.

Kroes cites a recent visit to a South Korean exhibition of technology which she states proves her point that:

Europe once led the world in innovation and in digital technology, but today we don’t.

The Koreans displayed the history of communications technology. Every item in that exhibition before 1940 was European: telephone, radio, television, computing devices.

After the war it was still Europe that developed the mobile phone, the CD, Bluetooth and the first personal computer, and finally the GSM standard for mobiles, and text messaging.

But then with the spread of the internet the US started taking over.

So far, so familiar - the beastly Yanks and their unfair building of a free-market global technology industry!

But then she strikes a relatively new note, one that has an interesting resonance as the technological mirror of the political realities of Europe – or rather, the Two Europes.

For just as Europe is politically divided despite its pretence at harmonization – with north v south, austerity regimes v spending ones or just the UK v well pretty much everyone else - so it is divided digitally, argues Kroes:

We have a problem today of two Europes: a digital Europe and an analogue Europe. Of digital mind-sets and analog mind-sets.

These are two Europes that rarely talk to each other, two Europes that hold back all of Europe because they are not in sync.

Now this strikes me as an interesting and potentially pragmatic argument as well as being one that, at least for now, doesn't find reason to blame the Yanks for Europe's woes.

Kroes expands on her point:

There is a Europe that is full of energy and digital ideas.  We have a growing start-up scene with thousands of people who are the smartest in the world at what they do. From Skype to Spotify to SAP, from Rovio toBooking.com to Campus Party. We have a young generation that uses their digital devices and apps and new ways of building communities and businesses.

This Europe is optimistic. This is the Europe where half of new jobs come from – the ICT-enabled jobs. This Europe is mobile and flexible. This Europe hates barriers and looks for new opportunities. This is the Europe that likes innovation – and is happy to use Uber and Air BnB.

But there is a second Europe. It is a Europe that is afraid of this digital future. They worry about where the new middle class jobs will come from. They don’t want to jump off what they see as a digital cliff.

Failure of leadership

This is good stuff. Has it really taken five years to come to this? Are Kroes and I to part company in agreement for once?

She's certainly on a roll as she berates the failure of leadership across Europe that has led to our current position:

It comes down to this question: is Europe’s leadership class willing to be excited about innovation and start-ups? Or is Europe going to be exhausted by using up its energy safeguarding vested interests, and holding up ancient barriers?
We need to ask if we can reinvent ourselves. And if we are willing to be led to a digital renaissance based on an open mindset and a belief that we can be the best if we want to be.

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Now here I admit I'm having a bit of a wobble, as to my mind among the most prominent of those safeguarding vested interests and holding up barriers, albeit new ones rather than ancient ones, have been the likes of Kroes and her former Justice Commissioner colleague Viviane Reding with her protectionist data sovereignty demands of the US.

But I'm back on side when Kroes goes on:

I still don’t know how Europe will answer. I believe this renaissance is possible, but in my mind there are oo many leaders still refusing to take up their responsibility.

Digital is a fact now. It’s not a choice, it’s a fact. And it is no longer acceptable to ignore it.

You are not a responsible leader if you ban services and categories of service without ever using them, or seeing if there is a way to compromise.

You are not a responsible leader if you think we can solve tomorrow’s problems by recreating past rules and industry structures.

You are not a responsible leader if don’t understand that coding is the new literacy.

It’s not easy to take responsibility – but that is what leadership is.

Then comes the mea culpa moment, that luxury only afforded politicians as they prepare to exit the stage. Kroes states:

I made many mistakes, maybe [more] than successes.

Frankness or false modesty? I don't know, but I do agree: she did.

So what are her personal regrets?:

If I had my time as Digital Commissioner again, I would have set fewer targets. I would have pushed the telco industry harder in the face of inevitable changes in the digital value chain. They see the challenges but are locked into old business models and need an external push for change. I would have moved sooner on deregulation and net neutrality. I would have taken control of the Connecting Europe Facility proposal earlier, before the funding for it was slashed by national leaders.

It’s all hard to say and it’s all true.

And now she gets really controversial:

With that in mind, I urge you to be sceptical about the fact that you don’t hear similar things from other tech and telecoms leaders, and rarely do you hear it from other political leaders.

For five years I have asked stakeholders and ministers what they would do in my shoes. And for five years I have been hearing about what they would like Europe to do for them.

After 5 years I am tired of it.

Go Neelie!!! Give them both barrels!!!

It is not enough to come to Brussels and complain or put your hand out for money. It is not enough to ask what Europe can do for you. Europe is you!

Europe is never going to grow again unless we see that we have to learn again how to compromise and face the future based on that compromise.

Let me borrow from Elvis Presley. We need "a little less confrontation and a little more action."

Er, not quite Neelie. It's 'A little less conversation, a little more action please.' But if the basic idea is less noise from the Brussels talking shop, then I'm good with that.

Curiously enough, it seems it might be:

Yes we need debate before we take action. I remain a democrat. But please let’s not have endless and pointless parallel conversations.

If our conversations are about the next year instead of the next generation, we will fail.

If our conversations are always about how other people need to change to make our lives easier, we will fail.

If our conversations ignore the grassroots efforts of our young digital talents, in favour of carving up markets amongst old companies, we will fail.

My take

Ironic that the one time I find myself nodding along in agreement with Commissioner Kroes is when she's delivering her last speech in the role.

For it's worth, I have never doubted her sincerity or her desire to promote a digital economy in Europe. Nor for that matter, would I ever suggest that she did not act at all times in what she felt was the best interests of Europe and its citizens.

But equally I have never doubted that the Big Europe, centralist diktat approach to government and regulation that she (and Reding) represented was the wrong approach. Kroes was right on the principles and the theory, emphatically wrong on the execution and strategy.

Where I do agree with her is in her plea for less talking and more action although I suspect that we are still coming at this from opposite directions. I want more action on the front line and at national government to stimulate digital enterprise. Is that the case with Kroes or is her desire really to see initiatives like new data protection rules not being held up by any more dissenting discussion?

Maybe I'm being unfair here, but I suspect there's an inherent frustration about not seeing her vision executed because others can't appreciate she's right and they're wrong.

Anyway, it's the start of a new era with a new digital commissioner. And as I look at what's to come, I'll be quite frank and state it now for the record: we're going to miss Neelie!

Or as Phil points out: New EU digital chief Oettinger shows how little he knows cloud.