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Prime Minister Ratas: A more competitive and tech-savvy Europe

One and a half years ago, heavy clouds filled the European horizon and a great thunderstorm was on its way. After the Brexit referendum, the air was full of political confusion.

When Estonia took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU in July, we did not have any illusions that these six months, or one brushstroke, could solve all of the problems of the EU. However, Europe conquered the adverse ‘weather’ conditions and regained control of the ship by being ready for Brexit talks, stabilising the euro and getting the migration crisis under control.

Thanks to our collective efforts the migration crisis has now again become migration management, which will allow us to focus on long-term joint solutions, based on responsibility and solidarity. Whereas in the summer months some 12 000 people arrived in Italy per week, the numbers of arrivals on the Central Mediterranean route have significantly dropped since July and there are 32% fewer arrivals than this time last year. Of course, this was the effort of all member states, especially those who suffered from the greatest migration pressure.

Digital revolution

I will not tire of repeating that Europe must keep up with technological progress and make it work in its favour. As Jim Hagemann Snabe, the CEO of Maersk, pointedly said to EU leaders in the first ever Digital Summit in Tallinn, digitisation will not be about the rise of the machine, but about empowering the people. Digitisation helps to save time, money, and other valuable resources, creates new opportunities and makes people’s everyday life easier. Last year, for example, Estonia saved 3 543 years of working time thanks to e-services and at least 2% of GDP thanks to electronic signatures.

I stand for the application of secure electronic identification across Europe to ensure that every European can safely operate, transact, and communicate in the digital domain both locally and cross border. I also encourage innovation in governments facilitating more cross-border digital services.

A harmonised spectrum policy paves the way for superfast 5G communication, self-driving vehicles, the Internet of Things, and many other new technologies that are to be a part of our daily lives. New, more efficient, and more convenient services can be created with the help of artificial intelligence, such as self-driving vehicles, which could, for example, help people with reduced mobility or disability to participate in social life.

Digital skills and trust in digital society

Europe must be a pathfinder in digital changes, but at the same time, we must make sure that people can keep up with these changes and adapt to them. Today, people must consistently develop their skills and knowledge, and acquire new professions to stay competitive on the labour market. The more that people with a good education and competitive skills participate in working life, the more they contribute to the growth and welfare of society.

According to the European Commission, 100 million Europeans have never used the internet and 45% of the population and 37% of the workforce of the EU have insufficient digital skills. A total of 42% of the people with insufficient digital skills in the EU are unemployed, while 40% of employers of the EU have announced that they cannot find employees with the required skills.

Trust in technology comes from the security and transparency of services – you cannot have one without the other. People need to be protected both offline and online. We recently eliminated the potential security risk in our national ID-cards, the cornerstone of Estonian digital society, before the risk could be taken advantage of. This reminds us that innovation, which supports development, and cautiousness are inseparable.

At a time when the challenges and threats to the security of Europe do not recognise national borders, the ability to think and act together is more important than ever. The EU also needs cutting-edge information systems in order to fight against terrorism and organised crime, and to protect its external borders. 

Economic growth

When it comes to the European economy, it is fundamental to support investments in digital economy and other sectors that ensure employment for young people. Entrepreneurship – especially small and medium-sized enterprises – offers the most opportunities for this.

Economic growth is also supported by transparent tax policy and a level-playing field in taxation for online and offline businesses. I am also happy to report that Santa´s life will be much easier soon, when the new rules limiting the geo-blocking of goods and services enter into force.

The future

A divorce, which Brexit certainly is, is always sad and difficult. Moreover, it will have an impact on us all, but I am glad that we are moving onto the next stage in the Brexit negotiations. The agreements made so far, best serve the people. We would not have made sufficient progress in negotiations without the efforts of Theresa May and her government. This must be acknowledged and appreciated. However, the first agreement is still an agreement of honour, which must be formalised as a legally binding contract. The following negotiations on the future relations will also depend on how the agreements of the previous tier are respected.

I am not going to deny that the talks ahead of us will be complicated. The current relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom was built over the course of 44 years, our lives are closely intertwined. But we have just a few years to build a new relationship. A transitional period is needed, which will hopefully ensure a softer landing for the institutions and enterprises of both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

But one thing is clear: the EU is important for the UK and the UK is important for the EU. 

Jüri Ratas, Prime Minister of Estonia