Interview: Commissioner Neelie Kroes on driving Europe’s Digital Agenda

18 Jun 2013

Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission with responsibility for the Digital Agenda

As Europe’s digital leaders gather in Dublin this week for the final, and largest, event of the Irish Presidency of the EU, the Digital Agenda Assembly, Ann O’Dea speaks to Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for Europe’s Digital Agenda.

The Digital Agenda Assembly takes place in Dublin Castle on Wednesday and Thursday, with an aim to cover some of the key priorities for Europe, and indeed Ireland, from ICT talent and broadband to e-government and a digital single market.

One of the key draws will be presence of Kroes. She has until now been beamed in via video link to various EU gatherings in Dublin, but will address more than 600 delegates in the flesh on Thursday.

High-speed broadband

High-speed broadband for all has always been high on Kroes’ priority list and will no doubt feature prominently in next week’s discussions. Under ambitious targets set out under her Digital Agenda for Europe strategy, by 2020 all homes and businesses should have a minimum of 30Mbps (megabits per second) broadband while half of European households would achieve 100Mbps.

The plan received a knock-back when the heads of European governments agreed to a new EU budget back in February. The long-mooted fund designed to accelerate high-speed broadband deployment throughout Europe, the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), had a proposed budget of €9.2bn, of which some €7bn had been earmarked for high-speed broadband. In actual fact, the entire CEF budget was cut to just €1bn.

Kroes was vocal about her disappointment at the time – her department (DG Connect) had been working on the CEF for many years, but she vowed to “keep fighting”.

“That was a decision that in my opinion was looking backwards and not looking at the future economy for Europe, but OK, that has taken place,” she told Silicon Republic this week, ahead of her Dublin visit. “What I am focused on now is that the main part of what is left of the money is put in development of important digital services, while still keeping part for high-speed broadband investment. Together with the EIB (European Investment Bank), we can still do some pilot projects which are very important.”

She also pointed to another crucial development that will help. Originally, when the commission proposed new legislation on spending of regional development funds for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) period, it proposed that around 60pc be spent on just three key priorities. The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament returned with a request for a fourth priority, which would be ICT-related, and that request has since been granted. 

“That is one positive point – that ICT is now the fourth requirement in the structural funds, so there we do have a hook in quite a bit of money to invest in high-speed broadband,” Kroes said.

Basically, countries in receipt of structural funds will now be obliged to allocate substantial sums to ICT. Ireland, for example, received nearly €900m in structural funds over the previous MMF period, and is expected to receive a similar sum for the upcoming seven-year period.

The talent challenge

ICT skills and talent are also high on Kroes’ Digital Agenda. She insists that high-quality human capital is key to a digital recovery, something that both Europe’s people and economies need, and yet we are not doing enough on this front in Europe. “By 2015, Europe could be short nearly 1m skilled ICT workers,” she said. “There is a challenge to be tackled. If not, we are not only missing a chance for unemployment solutions, but also missing a chance to retain companies who could move outside Europe.”

Talent mobility is key here, she said. “Mobility is, of course, a big thing. It would be strange to have a single market and have those talented people, and not take opportunities to encourage movement between countries.”

Companies, too, have a responsibility to be imaginative, and Kroes said she had recently met a German company that was looking for high-tech skills, sourced them in Spain, but found that the people in question were unwilling to move. “They took the initiative and started to do their research activities in Spain, connecting online with the main manufacturing base in Germany.”

While Kroes is focused on ensuring we develop ICT talent within Europe, she conceded that some of that talent may need to be sourced further afield “High skills immigration is one solution, and it could give us a real helping hand,” she said. “We can’t only think in ring-fenced solutions.”

However, what clearly interests her more are the various initiatives that have sprung up around Europe since she called over a year ago for a “Grand Coalition” for digital skills and jobs, asking industry, academia and governments to work together to ensure that the skills gaps are bridged. One resulting initiative is Academic Cube, supported by tech company SAP, where job-seekers can log into a website which attempts to match their CVs to current vacancies, and then advises on possible gaps in CVs.

“Then if you’re interested in a variety of jobs, it advises what would be the best solution to fill in those gaps, so to speak,” Kroes said. “So already that kind of initiative is there and there are so many open online course today, to allow young people to bridge those gaps.”

Bridging the gender divide

Kroes has also been very vocal and active in backing initiatives to bridge the gender gap in ICT, which has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

“We need to start early where the gap is already appearing among girls at school or even before, and encourage them to not skip the thoughts of being active in ICT later on in their careers, because today it is connected with all types of jobs, even health and culture,” she said.

Initiatives in schools are crucial, she said, welcoming the recent commitment by Europe’s CIOs (chief information officers) via their association CIONet that they will make more than 100,000 visits to schools in the coming years, to raise awareness among young people of the possibilities offered by a career in ICT.

Kroes is also a strong backer of initiatives like Greenlight for Girls, an international organisation dedicated to inspiring girls of all ages and backgrounds to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects by introducing them to the world of science in fun and exciting ways, including classroom outreach.

“I am also very pleased with your Women Invent Tomorrow initiative,” she said, referring to Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign in Ireland to champion the role of women and girls in STEM areas, an initiative supported by Intel, Accenture, Irish Research Council and CoderDojo.

“It is vital to create that awareness that ICT is an extremely broad field and a fascinating field. Here companies need to take the lead, as well as governments and other organisations,” she said.

With those 1m ICT vacancies at stake by 2015, encouraging more girls into the sector is a “win-win”, Kroes said. “It means a change in attitude of everybody so, as well as the fathers and mothers, we need to ensure that teachers are giving the correct information that is up to date, which is that in the near future all jobs will be ICT-related. It’s important that girls don’t think that it’s not sexy to choose maths or algebra, that they realise these subjects will actually give them more opportunities.”

This is often a question of changing perceptions, said Kroes. “I am such an example. I would have thought that it was too difficult for me until I was faced with it in university. With an excellent professor I got excited about it. Sometimes it is about talking to someone who will give you inspiration, and make you jump over your own limits. There are no limits. Everything is possible.”

Single telecoms market

With one year left in her mandate, a key ambition in the coming months for Kroes is to get a single telecoms market in Europe. In a speech last month to the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) at the European Parliament in Brussels, she said she wanted to complete the single telecoms market in Europe by next year, and that mobile roaming charges could be a thing of the past by Easter 2014. She believes the time has come for European nations to end roaming altogether

“It is a strange thought that we have a single market in Europe, but that one sector is outside of that, and that is the telecoms sector,” Kroes said. “The telecoms sector is so important for so many activities that we need a single market for them, too – there should be no hurdles, no barriers. Think of roaming, it is crazy that there is still roaming in a single market, so that if you cross a border you pay more.

“Our proposal for a single telecoms market will give more opportunities for the telecom operators, more opportunities for the citizens, and more opportunities for governments.”

Is she optimistic that this can be achieved? “Well, when it comes to the single telecoms market, it is an all-in package, so that also means roaming, and I’m fighting like hell for that.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 16 June

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology,engineering and maths

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human