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UK wary of Brussels’ latest digital plan



A scheme to digitise European industry includes plans for digital public services - but prompts concerns at over-regulation

Brussels’ latest plan to digitise the European Union includes five strands involving digital public services. However a group of member states led by the UK has warned that moves to create a “digital single market” could lead to over-regulation.

The “path to digitise European industry” announced by the European Commission last month is the latest component of the programme launched last year to create a digital single market. This has already spawned new data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation, which must be implemented within two years. 

A theme of the new plan is to get to grips with smart devices and the internet of things (IoT). It calls for “large scale pilot projects to strengthen internet of things, advanced manufacturing and technologies in smart cities and homes, connected cars or mobile health services”. Meanwhile, “future proof legislation” will support the free flow of data and clarify the ownership of data generated by sensors and smart devices making up the IoT.

Innovation hubs

The industry plan also promises to invest €500 million in a pan-EU network of digital innovation hubs where businesses can obtain advice and test digital innovations.

On digital public services, the plan notes that “people and businesses are still not reaping the full benefit from digital public services that should be available seamlessly across the EU”. An e-government action plan will modernise digital public services and make the EU a better place to live, work and invest through a number of measures, which include:

  • Creating a digital single gateway enabling users to obtain all information, assistance and problem-solving services needed to operate efficiently across borders.
  • Interconnecting business registries and insolvency registers and linking them to the EU e-justice portal, which will become a one stop shop.
  • Helping EU member states develop cross-border e-health services, such as e-prescriptions and patient summaries.
  • Accelerating the transition to e-procurement and e-signatures.

The programme’s leader, European vice president Andrus Ansip, a former prime minister of Estonia, said the e-government plan is a crucial component of the digital single market.

“As companies aim to scale up across the single market, public e-services should also meet today's needs: be digital, open and cross-border by design," he said. "The EU is the right scale for the digital times."

UK opposition 

However, the scheme is meeting a cool reception in the UK in the run-up to next month’s EU referendum. As leader of the 'Remain' campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron has had to curb his hostility to measures such as the Data Protection Regulation, imposed against UK opposition.

However in a letter to Ansip last month, a UK-led alliance of mainly Nordic and Baltic EU member states, along with Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, attacked another strand of the programme, which aims to regulate the US-dominated sector of “online platforms”. The letter said that platforms should be seen as an opportunity not a threat - and that the EU should resist the temptation to over-regulate.

“If at all possible, we should avoid introducing legislation that might act as a barrier to the development of new digital business models and create obstacles to entry and growth in the European digital market," the letter said. "Such legislation might have an unintentionally damaging effect on the innovation, competitiveness and economic growth of the European digital industries.”

Whether the UK’s view will carry much weight - or any weight at all after the referendum, remains to be seen.



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