A symbolic 13th German EU presidency: Navigating uncharted waters

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Taking on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the middle of a pandemic, Germany certainly faced challenges.

But Dorothee Bär, a member of the Bundestag for the CSU and State Minister for Digitization at the Federal Chancellery, believes you should never let a crisis go to waste. She was keen that her country grasped the opportunity to drive digitization forwards.

Joining Casper Klynge on the #TechFit4Europe podcast, she discusses the role technology can play in Europe’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and what the future might hold.

Here are five takeaways from their conversation.

1. 2020 has highlighted the power of technology for Europe’s biggest economy

Even within a relatively homogenous environment such as Europe, the adoption of technology can vary quite dramatically. Prior to the pandemic, Germany largely remained a cash-based society, for example. It was only when the need to protect service industry workers arose, that Germans started getting more used to contactless payment.

“When I took up office two and a half years ago, I was often asked what I thought was the reason for the slow pace of the digital transformation,” Bär recalls. “And I said at the time when order books are full and tax revenue is bountiful, we often don’t realize that fundamental changes are necessary in order to become fit for the future.”

2. 2020 is proof that things – including legislation – can move quickly when they need to

The post-pandemic recovery is pinned on sustainability and digitalization.

As Germany prepares to hand over its presidency, the Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, and the Data Governance Act will be key priorities of the Portuguese and Slovenian presidencies.

But while it is recognized that new legislation is desperately needed, it mustn’t undermine the potential for innovation.

“The not yet fully developed artificial intelligence and technology needs space to evolve,” Bär says. “The requirement, especially in the research and development context, must not be so high that they hamper progress.”

3. We need to work together to promote Europe’s digital strengths

Europe as a continent – as well as individual countries within it – offers different strengths and values to leading technology players elsewhere in the world.

Crucial to Europe’s success as a technology hub will be building an ecosystem with international appeal that puts existing centers of excellence at the heart. This needs to be backed up by a start-up environment and the support of local businesses.

“Why do we compare Germany with the Silicon Valley or with China on the other side?” Bär asks. “Everyone has their own values, different strengths, and I think it’s very important that we work together… It’s OK to see what other [countries] are doing, but what I really don’t want is that we think we have to copy someone.”

4. Digital sovereignty relies on a coordinated approach

COVID-19 has shown that coordination between member states is possible. By the second wave, countries were pulling together and the response was a lot more joined up.

After Brexit, the Franco-German relationship will become even more important. But despite this jostling among nations, data sovereignty needs to sit above all countries’ individual aims and priorities.

“Pursuing digital sovereignty shouldn’t mean taking protectionist measures or even attempting to be self-sufficient,” Bär says. “Rather, having digital sovereignty means deciding for ourselves in which areas we really want to be autonomous. And even the creation of mutual dependencies can in some cases lead to greater sovereignty, too. We don’t want to merely define ourselves by stressing our differences from other global players.”

5. GAIA-X is a crucial pillar of data sovereignty

GAIA-X – the European data federation project – gives Europe the power to counter the dominance of the U.S. and Asia, Bär believes. This secure and integrated digital infrastructure will be key to guarding data sovereignty.

The first GAIA-X-certified applications may well be seen by the middle of 2021.

“Our task is to anchor GAIA-X in the EU as a central initiative for the European Cloud Federation,” says Bär, “and to make it clear that GAIA-X will enable us to effectively implement European values and standards in their entirety in a sovereign data infrastructure.”

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A transcript of this episode will be available shortly.

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