The digital path to European identity

Europe's identity is much more than just an economic variable

How the newly declared digital single market could open up mental boundaries for a united Europe.

May 6, 2015 could go down in European history as the day the digital single market was born. On this day, EU Supercommissioner Andrus Ansip and his digital commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, unveiled their strategy to create a digital single market. Through the universality of their content, the 16 initiatives, which are to be implemented this year and next year, show the consistency and rationality of the thinking behind the "digital single market" (DSM) and make it clear that the new commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker has finally put the EU on the path to the digital age. The tight time frame for the concept's implementation also signals that the EU is ready to put the pedal to the metal.

It has been a long time since I have had such a feeling that our continent is in such a forward-thinking mood. It is as if within just a few months, years of whining about the crisis and constantly holding summits to symbolize political crisis management with no real desire for change have melted away. We owe this to a new self-image of the Union and thus of Europe - an image that was apparent in the EU-wide front-runners of the European parliamentary election.

Europe is beginning to soften the absolutism of the nation states as the deciding political force on the basis of the displacement of democratically legitimized power structures in interaction with citizen-oriented EU institutions. This is forcing the standstill-instigating demons of national interests back into the bottle in favor of shared European visions.

It may seem paradoxical. But in the years after the crisis, the focus on economic interests with disregard for the moral values on which the union, as a venerable model of civilization, is based, has led to the realization that only a unified Europe can prevent disintegration into global marginalization.

The economic giants within the European Union are publicly reluctant to accept this insight, but the fundamental economic facts tell a different story. The single currency has boosted the exports of many countries. In Germany alone, the rate is around 45 percent. And the stability of the euro is not in crisis - at best, some countries are having difficulties refinancing on the international capital markets. Germany has made a profit of 1.2 billion euros since the introduction of the single currency.

It's the digital economy, stupid!

Nevertheless, the world's largest market, with over half a billion consumers, will only shine fully if all trade barriers are eliminated in the digital economy and given a backbone of European ethics. It therefore makes sense for the European Union's digital ministries to now be spearheading the integration of the continent.

What is needed to establish the digital single market?

The commission's newly declared offensive addresses access to digital services (access), the design of the necessary preconditions (environment), and accompanying economic and social transformation processes (economy and society), and hence the three most important political fields of action for the digital single market's creation.

In the future, e-commerce in Europe must be as limitless and easy as shopping in a mall. Unauthorized geo-blocking will be eliminated in conjunction with adapting copyright and licensing law to digital business models.

The second point boils down to overcoming national, highly fragmented telecom markets in favor of a fair domestic market that guarantees net neutrality and gives consumers usage incentives by eliminating roaming fees. The telecom lobbyists are still slowing down this train, but they can no longer derail it. In addition, increased attention will be given to designing sound competition guidelines for online platforms so that search engines, social media, and app stores can continue to thrive.

The role of a shared, far-reaching data protection policy and a European-defined right to privacy as a major anchor of trust in the digital economy has been sufficiently discussed. For me, the newly awakened commitment to Europe represents an opportunity to step forward at the beginning of the coming year as a role model for the world with regard to these fundamental rights.

IIn the area of cybersecurity, Europe appears to me to have taken the right path in recent years. High-end encryption and the highest binding standards for megatrends such as cloud computing, big data, and mobile applications will continue to lay the economic groundwork.

What is needed in society?

Europe's borders in the sense of the free flow of data in the Union must be abolished based on the highest interoperability standards, and e-Government must be expanded as a further driver of a completely digital society - in a totally centralized manner. All these building blocks, however, will only come together when our educational system uncompromisingly commits to a digital society and begins inculcating young people with the specific skills they need to be part of an IT-based knowledge society. 

E-literacy, or put figuratively, the ability to read and write in the digital IT and media cosmos, is now the central qualification without which all other kinds of knowledge acquisition remain far below their value. We must provide the "digital natives" with an environment for learning and developing that will equip them for full participation in social, economic and cultural life when their training is complete and they are continuing to learn for the rest of their lives in perfect sync with other innovative technological developments.

What can this lead to?

The EU initiative to create a digital single market still needs to reach this conclusion. What, then, is my vision in this regard?

In the end, all these developments must lead to the forging of a European identity, which we so urgently need to boost the economy of the continent. An e-identity as a unified criterion for accessing a digital single market is a strategic and technical implementation of something that must emerge even more strongly in our minds – a feeling of belonging to Europe. Were the state to issue a certificate in recognition of the factuality of the digital market in parallel with the birth certificate, it would be an important and appropriate stimulus for the pan-European conducting of transactions and passing through official channels throughout Europe. Alongside that, mental Europeanization must be more widely propagated to promote the acceptance, and thus the use, of such an e-identity.

And here we come full circle. With regard to its global positioning, Europe has focused too long solely on the economic map and ignored the high-speed model from across the Atlantic. In other words, Europe has decoupled the market from its model of civilization. But the time is now right to reintertwine these two poles, both of which are essential to Europe's future abiity to function.

Maybe some day, the vision of Ulrike Guérot of "The European Democracy Lab," who envisages the birth of a European republic, will come true. "We must conceive of a sovereignty beyond nation states; we must be part of a united Europe without abandoning or denying our regional and national identities."

Indeed, Europe can only be strong if it applies its civilizing force to solving the big social problems. The preferred ingredients for germinating a European identity are extending social security from shore to shore, consistently keeping the peace, spreading democracy and freedom to every corner of the continent, and developing new formulas for integration. The latter alone is the intercultural precondition for enabling the sleeping economic giant to achieve its full economic potential on an unprecedented scale and at last become a persuasive global role model for the 21st century.