The importance of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans and Kosovo

Commissioner-Mariya-Gabriel

Op-ED

By: Mariya Gabriel – EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society

Society has always been driven by change; all that has altered over the years is the speed with which it has come. In the 21st century, change is almost a daily occurrence, with the launch of some new invention, technology or service designed to make our lives simpler, safer and more rewarding.

The EU’s answer to this change is the Digital Single Market Strategy, which is designed to ensure that the EU is well placed to attract investments, foster creativity and innovation, provide top-class public services and protect our businesses and citizens.

The needs of our partners in the Western Balkans are no different than ours in the EU, especially with so many of the countries in that region looking ahead to a future within the European Union. That is why we have developed a Digital Agenda for the region, to work side-by-side to put the strategies, investment and services in place that will help transform the lives of citizens. This new agenda, which I launched together with the Western Balkans partners on 25 June, would allow the EU to work closely with our neighbours to look for the best ways to extend the benefits of digital technology to the citizens of the region by bringing positive deliverables.

The Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans is one of the key pillars of the European Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy which was published in February of this year.  It covers a wide range of areas from broadband infrastructure, public sector modernisation and the digitalisation of industry to digital skills and cybersecurity, but also a roadmap for lowering roaming charges. The ultimate aim is to support the countries in the region to succeed their digital transformation and to prepare them better for their own potential future within the European Union.

The Agenda focuses on key technologies and issues that will have a particular benefit on citizens across the region. Ongoing work on lowering roaming charges is an example. We are working to develop a regional roaming agreement including the six partners of the region and benefitting all consumers within the region, next to parallel efforts to lower tariffs with the EU. The aim will be to move closer to a roam-like-at-home approach as in the EU, passing through a series of progressively lower tariffs to allow the industry to adapt. This will not come overnight, but I know the desire is there, and European and national regulators have agreed to monitor this process.

Broadband is another key example. The development of high-speed networks today is having the same impact as the development of electricity and transportation networks a century ago. Broadband internet is the enabler of many innovative services such as e-health, ‘smart’ cities and data-driven manufacturing. This is why the European Commission is supporting the roll-out of high-speed broadband in the region, sharing our expertise and making €30 million available for broadband roll-out in the region.

Improved connectivity is not enough though; the real gains come when you invest in people. We need to enhance together the skills of our citizens of all ages and backgrounds. The region needs well-trained workers with the proper digital skills to match the demands of this new economy. The sixth edition of EU Code Week takes place from 6 to 21 October this year. My objective is to reach 50% of all schools in Europe by 2020.  In this context, it is crucial that Western Balkan partners to be fully involved in such initiatives. This grass-roots initiative can take pride in its 2017 figures, with the participation of over 1.2 Million people, and an impressive 46% of female participants. Kosovo, this year, will take part for the first time with one project. I encourage more active participation from now on.

For a digital society to work, there has to be trust, which is why the Digital Agenda also focuses on cyber security: trust that personal data is safe or that sensitive business information isn’t leaked. That is why each country needs a robust national cyber security strategy. At the EU level, this is coordinated through the Network and Information Security Directive (NIS).we can support Kosovo in its efforts to align its own cyber security policy with the NIS to ensure rapid and concrete results for citizens and businesses alike and to also cooperate with ENISA.

If change is what drives society, then innovation is what drives change. And today more than ever, innovation is driven by start-ups. The global tech sector might be dominated by a handful of big players, but much of the best innovation still comes from small companies with big ideas. Start-ups in the EU are supported in a variety of ways, such as through Startup Europe, an initiative of the European Commission designed to connect start-ups, investors, accelerators, entrepreneurs, corporate networks, universities and the media through an array of networks. Startup Europe is open to the Western Balkans countries, and I am convinced that companies and start-ups from Kosovo can learn a great deal from connecting with their counterparts across the EU. To launch our joint work on this, a special session at the upcoming Start up Summit in Sofia will also focus on the Western Balkans region.

An often overlooked driver for digital transformation is the modernisation of public administrations through the development of digital services for citizens. In order to facilitate and speed up the development of e-Government services, the EU has established the ISA2 Programme to help public administrations, including those in the Western Balkans, in their efforts to deliver public services to other public administrations, citizens and businesses. Experience has shown that through digitalisation, public authorities can offer better, cheaper and more flexible services to citizens in today’s borderless digital world.

Change continues to drive our societies, but the big advantage of digital changes is that they are much more accessible to everyone. Everyone benefits from a world that is more connected, where services are simpler, safer and faster. Whether they are in Kosovo, elsewhere in the Western Balkans or in the EU, citizens have a right to benefit from all that digitalisation can bring them – and we have a duty to make it happen by working together.

 

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