On 11 March, Access Partnership attended the second EU Digital Day, hosted by the Commission in Brussels, with participation from a swathe of national digital ministers. As anticipated, no less than 23 countries (both EU member states and candidate states, including Serbia) signed a joint declaration on artificial intelligence committing to enhanced cooperation to ensure that Europe does not fall behind either China or the United States when it comes to AI innovation and deployment.
Later in the day, ministers put pen to paper again, issuing joint declarations on blockchain and the use of data (specifically genome data) to personalise healthcare. Encouragingly, the UK was party to each of these agreements; a welcome indication of the potential for post-Brexit cooperation in research and innovation. The event wrapped with the launch of an Innovation Radar Platform, a Commission backed tool which will map innovation clusters across the EU.
Securing funding for the digital future
A day that started with glorious sunshine and more than a hint of optimism in the spring air about the potential for EU digital leadership ended with a sharp downpour and a sobering message from the Commission Vice President for Budget and Human Resources (and of course, former Digital Commissioner) Gunther Oettinger. Phoning in his message from the Commission headquarters a stone’s throw away, Oettinger sought to focus minds on the immediate task in hand: securing adequate funding for all of the grand ideas on display here through the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The Commission will table it’s proposal at the beginning of May, kicking off a process of intensive scrutiny in Parliament and Council.
Oettinger reflected on the missed opportunities of the past, where funding for the Connecting Europe Facility was gradually whittled down as member states bartered away funding for digital projects in favour of other, more obdurate budget items. For the grand ambition of the EU to be realised, investment in infrastructure, skills and start-ups will be key. Oettinger called on all those with a desire to see EU tech succeed to lobby their national governments to put forth the cash when they come to negotiate the MFF.
A final thought for the Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who was ubiquitous throughout and saved the event on more than one occasion from an embarrassing all-male panel own goal. The Commissioner’s own rules prevent her from speaking on any such panel, and the organisers were nearly left red faced by Gabriel’s decision to call out one panel comprised entirely of male ministers. One of the greatest challenges of all for the EU tech sector is to get more women and minorities involved in STEM and digital policy-making, so that the AI of the future doesn’t simply embed biases of the past.