Rule of Law
It’s a long way to ‘Polexit’
15 October 2021
While the vaccine will eventually become available to Central Europe and the restrictions will be lifted, a lot of the innovations and changes as a result of COVID-19 are here to stay. Digital technologies that were once crucial to minimising the impact of lockdowns will be key to the economic recovery in a post-pandemic world.
Dita Charanzová MEP remarks on the future of work, innovation and cross-border cooperation among the V4 countries in the context of the New Europe 100 Forum 2.0 that took place on 10-11 December 2020.
Let me take this opportunity to reflect on the last year in a more positive light and look at what some of the key lessons can be from this dramatic year. A year which has brought terrible suffering and sacrifice, but also incredible innovation, advancements and opportunity.
I will be focusing on digital trends and challenges to the future of work because it is impossible to ignore the ‘digital’ implications that the COVID-19 measures have had, and what this will mean in a post-COVID-19 world and on trends for future work.
During the lockdown, we were forced to move most of our lives online- government, business, citizens, employers, employees, teachers and students, we all had to adapt and fully embrace becoming ‘digital by default’.
Long before the pandemic though, businesses had been on a somewhat steady path toward digital transformation, and citizens and consumers as well. We were talking about the digital revolution for years now, and surely most of us have had experiences shopping or keeping in touch with loved ones online before 2020. This is not something novel.
But the lockdowns and measures in response to COVID-19 have accelerated this digital transformation. It triggered more out-of-the-box thinking, leading to incredible innovations and changes as a result. Even in the way that we do politics as MEPs- from online voting to remote negotiations. Or to webinars and online events, like the New Europe 100 Forum 2.0.
So much has changed so quickly.
In 2019, just 5.4 per cent of those employed in the EU usually worked from home. This figure has been more or less constant for the past ten years. And the number of those who worked at least sometimes from home was at nine per cent.
Fast forward to 2020 and it is over 40 per cent working fulltime from home (according to Eurofound). Teleworking was an important part of our government’s response to tackling the health crisis. Without the ability to work from home, such a wide level of confinement would have been impossible and the damages to both our citizens’ health and our economy would have been that much greater
Of course, not all jobs can be done remotely, but almost all jobs can benefit from the digital revolution and the data economy.
While the vaccine will eventually become available to our societies and measures will be lifted, a lot of these changes are here to stay. And digital technologies that were once crucial to minimising the impact of lockdowns will be key to the recovery in a post-pandemic world.
Digital solutions help create jobs, advance education, boost competitiveness and innovation and improve the lives of citizens. Digital technology has a key role to play in helping to achieve goals, like achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050, or helping detect cancer more quickly and accurately to save lives.
The future is digital, and we need to make sure that we, in the EU and more specifically here in the V4 countries, are prepared to grasp the opportunities ahead. We need to step up our game for the sake of our health, wellbeing, economies and climate. From digital services to Artificial Intelligence, from cybersecurity to cloud computing. We have the talent, but we need to start investing in actually developing and deploying these new technologies now. We need to pool data that will be the lifeblood of future growth.
One of the main problems throughout the EU is the infamous but very real ‘digital divide’.
In Europe, we still have a number of digital divides in terms of digital literacy, broadband quality and affordability, and general preparedness of countries. For instance, some areas of Europe are much more prepared than others (North-South, rural-countryside).
Europe still has much to do in filling these gaps.
Affordable and fast broadband is fundamental, and I argue should be seen as a utility. Without the infrastructure, teleworking would be impossible, and the future jobs generating the growth of tomorrow cannot be sustained. Through the Electronic Communications Code that I led last mandate, every European citizen now has the right to an affordable broadband Internet connection. Access has indeed improved a lot in the past decade.
In 2019, 90 per cent of EU households had internet access, compared to 64 per cent in 2009. But we now need to make sure that this is 100 per cent.
Connectivity is key to ensuring a conducive environment for start-ups to thrive and scale-up. The proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises that are equipped with an Internet connection with a speed of more than 30 megabytes per second in Poland is only 16 per cent. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is less than a fifth, and in Hungary, it is 20 per cent. We need to prioritise access to the Internet, and high-quality Internet, as one of the first steps.
Of course though, beyond access, employers and employees need proper education and understanding to be able to utilise this access to the internet. I spoke earlier about the physical and digital divides, but there is also a generational divide. We therefore also need to invest more in digital education and skills, not just for youth but also upskilling of the existing workforce.
I am happy to see that there are cross-border projects of cooperation on this very important issue among V4. To name a few examples, we have the “Technology without borders” programme which finances projects between the Czech Republic and Poland for investing in joint education and training schemes for relevant skills of the future using the potential of natural and cultural resources.
Another example of excellent cross-border cooperation is the Coordination and communication of the complex innovation program for creating jobs in the Pons Danubii Region (the project is known as Novum Danuvium) between Slovakia and Hungary. The Pons Danubii region is surrounded by car manufacturing. Due to fast technological advancements in this sector, the project concentrates on helping suppliers in developing new products/services and aims to ensure quality employment and possibilities for ensuring better labour mobility in the region.
We need to continue cooperating together. I see more possibilities in developing other important projects for the future. I would also mention the development of digitally connected high-speed trains for example, which will help us better connect the region and also help as a solution to climate challenges linked to clean mobility.
There is definitely room for improvement when it comes to implementing the digital agenda in V4 and preparing for the future. In the Global Innovation Index, the Czech Republic is ranked 27th, Slovakia 33rd, Hungary 35th and Poland 41st. We need to step up investments into research.
For instance, in my home country, the Czech Republic, only one per cent of our GDP goes into research, which is not enough but also is not being fully utilised in an effective way.
Funding will be important here, and once the EU budget is approved, we need to take advantage and use wisely the funds allocated for the so-called digital transition. Digital is one of the key pillars of the recovery fund, where at least 20 per cent of this will be made available for the digital transition, including for SMEs.
We need to have a clear vision now and prioritise if we want to become “digital by default”. This event, being held with brilliant entrepreneurs and thinkers from our region is a good way to share ideas together. We will not become digital leaders by ourselves, competing with the likes of China or the United States. We need to work together with allies like the US, work together as Union, and as V4.
We need to continue working together, sharing best practices and ideas like at the New Europe 100 Forums, and then translate these into practical proposals and projects that will not only help our countries, our region, through the digital transition but to lead it.
New Europe 100 Forum is supported by the International Visegrad Fund.
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