EU-US digital relations

AmCham1How to define the digital transatlantic relations between the EU and the US? Having attended the AmCham EU 2nd Annual Transatlantic Conference last week, it was refreshing to see that cooperation and trust remain the key priorities in a relationship which has sometimes been tense.

As often seen in these conferences, the panel really got stuck into it when it came to the Q&A session. The main thrust of this was widespread frustration at the lack of progress in the digital agenda. While everyone acknowledges that legislation takes time, following the progress made by the Commission and European Parliament, blame was laid squarely at the Member States’ door; MEP Pilar Del Castillo described Member States as an ‘iron wall’ and called for a digital tsunami to focus on growth and jobs. It has to be recognised that Council has not shown real willingness in this area, despite businesses pointing out time and again that fragmentation represents a real brake on progress, in particular in EU-US investments.

It was interesting that TTIP only made a bit of a cameo appearance in the discussion, intertwined as it is with the digital agenda. Instead, greater focus was on European priorities in the digital agenda. On this theme the highlight of the day was Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister & Minister for Development Cooperation. His style and delivery of his speech was fresh, and it wasn’t lacking in content either. De Croo focused on the role of government in driving digital sector growth – not to create jobs themselves but to foster an ecosystem in which job growth can flourish. He identified five priorities for Belgium in particular, namely: greater infrastructure; enhancing digital skills; providing digital security; more e-government; and greater focus on e-commerce. That his experience working in the US has clearly rubbed off was evident when he raised the need to “give opportunity to people with crazy ideas”.

AmCham3There were no surprises from the Commission, and DG Connect’s Thibault Kleiner promised greater speed and focus– whether it will be able to deliver on that promise remains to be seen. DG Connect’s Director General Robert Madelin was more philosophical, focusing on how corporate strategy should play a part in addressing unfairness in the digital discussion. His view was that businesses had been quiet recently in the digital discussion, perhaps because the business community appeared more divided and less aware of what they want. It seems the world upside down that it is Commission asking business to have a more strategic voice in Europe. Madelin thought that the change in the Commission’s structure was a positive step, with no single Director General in charge anymore which was a good step. It seems that the Commission’s Secretariat General will be playing a greater role in the Juncker Commission, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The discussion reverted to the core of the topic in hand with the Deputy Chief of the US Mission to the EU John Sammis making the case for greater US-EU cooperation and, echoing Madelin, a more robust voice from business. Only towards the end of the conference did the issue of anti-US sentiment arise. On this, Sammis made the point that there is strong respect in the US for EU competition enforcement, but that it should not be politicised.

Marzena Rembowski is Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting Brussels.

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