With the change of the seasons in full swing, the new political season also kicked-off in Brussels last week with European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, delivering her first ever State of the European Union speech to the European Parliament. Getting Europe back on track, despite the ongoing uncertainty caused by COVID-19, was unsurprisingly the focus of her address. Calling for the EU to lead the way “from fragility to a new vitality”, she emphasised the importance, not just of repair and recovery today, but of taking concrete action to build a better world for tomorrow. And at the heart of this pledge lies the EU’s commitment to creating a greener, more digital and resilient Europe.
Protecting lives and livelihoods, ensuring green growth, and accelerating Europe’s digital transformation were among the key topics addressed by President von der Leyen – and technology has an essential role to enabling all three. The President’s message was clear: “We must make this Europe’s Digital Decade”. At Microsoft, our commitment to supporting this ambition through the technology we develop and deploy has never been greater.
That is why we are pledging to make ‘Tech Fit 4 Europe’. This is our direct response to the EU’s vision for a ‘Europe Fit for the Digital Age’, and an acknowledgement of the particular role the tech sector needs to play in helping Europe realize its digital ambitions. Making ‘Tech Fit 4 Europe’ means, first and foremost recognizing Europe’s role in leading the way to solving global challenges and a need to take our relations with Europe to the next level. Secondly, it requires addressing the valid concerns behind calls for Europe to be more ‘digitally sovereign’. And finally, it is about supporting Europe with leveraging the opportunities and addressing the challenges of digital transformation, in particular in the wake of COVID-19.
Tech for Skills and Jobs
A crucial priority must be getting Europe back to work. In July alone, the number of unemployed people in the EU increased by over 330,000, bringing the overall unemployment rate to 7.2 percent. This means that more than 15 million people are jobless, with youth and low-skilled and manual workers particularly affected.
We urgently need to focus our collective efforts on supporting the people worst impacted by the pandemic to re-enter the labor market. In today’s world that means equipping them with digital skills, which 42 percent of Europeans still lack. To bridge this gap, the Commission has proposed a new European Skills Agenda as well as a “Pact for Skills”, mobilizing stakeholders to work together for change and create more and better training opportunities. These are important steps, and I have high hopes that in particular the “Pact for Skills” can be the game-changer we need to further mobilize relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, and to build much-needed momentum in this area.
At Microsoft, we’ve stepped up our longstanding engagement on this issue, by launching an initiative aimed at bringing more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of 2020. The initiative also provides jobseekers with free access to learning content, certifications and job-seeking tools; helps companies up-skill new and existing employees; and gives governments insights on labor market trends and the most in-demand skills. Since launching our global skills initiative in June with LinkedIn and GitHub, we’ve helped reached more than 10 million learners around the globe. Of those, over 2.2 million are in Europe and over 1.5 million within the EU.*
The path to getting our economies back on track is a steep one, and no one organization has all the solutions for how to get people back to work. But as tech company, we will use our resources and expertise where it makes most sense: making sure jobseekers have the right skills to succeed.
Tech for Green Growth
Another top priority must be accelerating Europe’s green transition. I was encouraged to see that, even amid the peak of the pandemic, Europe never lost sight of its ambition to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 – something that was not a given. By doubling down on its commitment, rather than easing off in times of crisis, Europe has confirmed its leadership on sustainability. And President Von der Leyen reinforced this last week, when she confirmed that the European Commission will propose an increased 2030 target for emission reduction of at least 55%.
Leveraging the power of technology to protect our planet is essential. That’s why we have supported the European Alliance for a Green Recovery, calling for investments to drive green growth, and it’s why we have joined the European Corporate Leaders Group and its open call encouraging more ambitious EU climate targets. But driving change also means setting ever-higher standards for ourselves when it comes to eliminating our entire historical carbon footprint, tackling waste and water challenges, preserving ecosystems, and deploying data to solve global environmental problems and accelerate progress toward a more sustainable future. Building and maintaining partnership with public and private stakeholders alike will be vital for delivering on these commitments, and we will continue to work towards alliances that advance shared climate ambitions.
Tech for Inclusion
Increasing digital inclusion must be a third key priority. From students and employees in rural areas unable to study or work from home due to limited connectivity, to people with disabilities or the elderly limited in their use of technology to overcome social isolation, the pandemic has highlighted a more pronounced digital divide that we can no longer ignore.
Technology companies have the resources and expertise to help bridge this divide. Microsoft is working to bring free broadband access to disadvantaged students in rural Ireland, and we continue to make accessibility a priority for our products and services so that people with disabilities are just as connected as anyone else, especially in the era of remote work and social distancing. Meanwhile our Open Data Campaign, aimed at providing wider access to data, is contributing to Europe’s digital transformation efforts by helping organizations of all sizes realize the benefits of data – something President von der Leyen has pointed out can be a “powerful engine for innovation and new jobs”.
Making this “Europe’s Digital Decade” requires secure, trusted digital infrastructure and services that allow European industries and citizens to benefit from the value of their data. This is the foundation for delivering on all aforementioned priorities. At the same time, we recognize that there are valid concerns that need to be addressed. Europe has a legitimate interest in remaining competitive and retaining control over its data. This self-determination is the essence of digital sovereignty – and it is something all market participants, including U.S. tech companies, need to respect and follow. By leading with a rules-based approach, Europe can build on state-of-the-art technology to reap the benefits of the digital economy without compromising on its principles and decades-long commitment to competitive and open markets. We wish to play an active role in contributing to Europe’s global competitiveness with technology that is built with respect for European values and fundamental rights and meets the highest standards of privacy, security and transparency.
2020 has tested not just Europe, but the entire world, and as technology becomes increasingly interwoven into our lives, companies like ours have a greater responsibility than ever before to help shape a fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable post-COVID future. A crisis like this one is a turning point: an opportunity to address systemic problems head-on while still prioritizing timeless, fundamental values. And while this is far bigger than any one government or company, each of us must do our part. For Microsoft, that means supporting a digital, green and inclusive economic recovery with technology that’s fit for Europe.
*Editors note: This blog was updated on October 2, 2020 to reflect the information shared here.