Digital Policy Under the Next European Commission

September 19, 2014

The new college of European Commissioners is expected to assume office on 1st November. While the whole college of Commissioners-designate presented by President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker will have to be approved by the European Parliament, we already have certainty about the future priorities of the next Commission. Digital policy will be one of them.

The truly innovative part about the next Commission is its new structure. Commissioners are supposed to work together in groups on seven key projects that are of primary importance for their 5-year term. Seven Vice-Presidents will act as project managers overseeing the development of each project. A ‘Connected Digital Single Market’ will be one of the projects to be overseen by Vice-President-designate Andrus Ansip, a former Prime Minister of the very digitally-minded Estonia. The development of policy will be assigned to Commissioner-designate Günther Oettinger from Germany, currently Commissioner for energy, who will be responsible for the ‘Digital Economy and Society’.

The new structure is intended to create a culture of dialogue and mutual dependence among the new VPs and the Commissioners tasked with specific portfolios. Accordingly, Oettinger will need Ansip’s approval of a policy initiative while Ansip will need Oettinger to deliver on the project assigned to him.

There are also novelties as to the areas of responsibility assigned to the Commissioner responsible for digital matters. Fundamentally important, Oettinger will assume new responsibility for copyright, IP enforcement and e-commerce policy. This move certainly makes sense as these policy areas feature a strong digital element. In the mission letter to Oettinger, President-elect Juncker expects him to modernize copyright rules in the first part of his mandate. European copyright law is certainly in need of a modernization but it will be key to see what the Commission’s new vision for copyright policy will be. The task can only be to modernize copyright in a way that gives breathing space for innovators and provides greater cross-border legal certainty. Unfortunately, the Commission’s current vision of copyright seems to one of a tool for industrial policy, rather than innovation policy.

The digital agenda of the next Commission can only be successful if policymakers will promote the use of the Internet throughout the European economy. It will be fundamental to understand that there is no difference between the digital and the ‘traditional’, offline economy anymore. The economy is digital. Already back in 2011 McKinsey found that 75% of the economic impact of the Internet accrues to traditional companies that don’t define themselves as pure Internet players. Europe’s economic backbone are SMEs – making sure that policies help SMEs to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet must be central.

Zooming out a bit from the nitty-gritty of specific policy proposals, the next Commission, led by the work of the Commissioners who will together advance the Connected Digital Single Market project, will stand in front of a fundamental decision which they have to take right from the beginning of the mandate. They will have to either embrace the Internet and accept its often disruptive repercussions or try to regulate these in an attempt to preserve certain sectors of the economy that adapted less well to the Internet age. The latter would not only reveal a very short-sighted vision but would also risk to have unintended, negative consequences for the whole economy. Europe stands to gain far more from embracing the Internet, promoting its use and preparing for an increasingly digital and interconnected economy.

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