GovTech II: Portugal assumes EU presidency & goes digital
“People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them,” wrote Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, in his Memoir in 1978.
Four decades later, coronavirus hit, unveiling the European Union’s digital skills gap, internal divisions, and radically changing the way Europeans live, work, and socialise. Europe had no choice but to go digital.
Depending on whom you ask, the digital transformation of 2020 represented opportunities, challenges, or symptoms—what optimists called an opportunity to finally go digital, cynics called a total catastrophe, while others took it as a lesson that digital transformation cannot be seen as just another additive to our policy system. Essentially, the pandemic placed digital at the top of agenda for the EU, being listed as a number one priority in the program of the Portuguese presidency of the council of the European Union—a move that also suggests Portugal’s intention to position itself as a shaper of the Zoom-era of policymaking.
This all came at the time when many technology companies, particularly American and Chinese tech giants, were under scrutiny for privacy concerns. At the same time, Europe had to face the fact that 42 percent of the EU population did not have the digital skills needed to perform basic tasks such as connect to a wi-fi network or use websites, according to a report published by the European Commission. Digital skills quickly became a topic of discussion, resulting in “digital transition” joining its green counterpart as the top two leads of the post-pandemic Recovery and Resilience Facility mechanism of the EU.
The presidency aims to have the first tranche of the European Union recovery funds reach member states “in the first half of 2021.” This means allocating funds in line with digital being a core component of this. With the second and third waves of the pandemic sweeping across the continent, solving the pan-EU recovery puzzle will be a major challenge of the Portuguese Presidency but not the only one. Portugal is in the hot seat.
Portugal has tasked itself to push for the EU’s digital sovereignty by scaling up the startup ecosystem and focusing on digital infrastructure. Portugal understands the necessity to build on this momentum of pandemic-led digitization. By enhancing competitiveness, enabling organisations and state entities to harness the value of their data, Europe must address the digital skills gaps. Portugal, an aspiring “European tech tiger,” is now playing an important role in determining Europe’s digital future. This includes Portugal’s push for a pan-European investment plan to roll out a network of undersea cables, scaling-up Europe’s digital infrastructure.
In April 2020, the Portuguese government launched an action plan with a set of measures to promote the digital transition of the economy, society and public administration. As a part of the Portugal Digital Mission Structure, the digital transition action plan is meant to serve as the driving force for the digital transformation of the country. The Portuguese digitisation strategy is built around three pillars: digital inclusion, digital transformation for the business sector, and digitization of the state. With the EU Presidency, Portugal is given a chance to build a long-lasting legacy on digital regulation.
The Portuguese presidency will play a pivotal part in the most daunting task in EU digital policy from 2021 onwards – the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA). Even though these files are likely to be adopted in a few years, the Portuguese Presidency has noted that that the “DSA will be tabled in the Council at the Internal Market Working Party, and the Digital Markets Act will appear in the Competition Working Party. Both files will fall under the COMPET Council,” reported Euractiv’s Samuel Stolton. This was further confirmed by Ricardo Castanheira, the Digital Counsellor at the Portuguese Permanent representation to the EU: “the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union will pay close attention to the new Digital Services Package as a key legislative tool for the moderation of online content, the protection of fundamental rights and to enhance the competition on the digital market.”
Portugal understands the necessity to build on this momentum of pandemic-led digitization. By enhancing competitiveness, enabling organisations and state entities to harness the value of their data, Europe must address the digital skills gaps. Portugal, an aspiring “European tech tiger,” is now playing an important role in determining Europe’s digital future. For instance, the Portuguese are planning to release the “Declaration on “European Startup Standard” during the presidency. And while Portugal’s startup system is still embryonic, nowhere close to London or Berlin, but it is growing rapidly and aspiring to become the startup capital of Southern Europe—this ambition to grow is also reflected in the presidency programme and mirrors Portugal’s long-standing ambition to become one of Europe’s digital leaders.
“It’s now time to make entrepreneurship [a] European priority,” wrote Ricardo Castanheira, the Digital Counsellor at the Portuguese Permanent representation to the EU in a LinkedIn post. The credentials point at the Portuguese presidency understanding the momentum and aiming to lead the digital recovery, don’t they?
About the GovTech series
The COVID-19 pandemic made it evident that “business as usual” does not work in crisis situations and that out of the box solutions to tackle novel situations are needed. We will discover how digitisation shapes public sector across Europe, showcasing examples from Finland, France, Lithuania, Portugal, the Netherlands and beyond. From fresh digitisation ideas to conventionalised government technology agencies (GovTechs), these series will tackle the public sector’s need to embrace new technologies.
by Tomas Vitas