We Have Europe's Future in Our Hands

06/10/2015 10:54 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

The following speech was delivered on June 10, 2015 at the Noah Conference in Berlin.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to address the NOAH Conference today. I congratulate the organizers on their decision to hold this conference in Berlin. It is an excellent choice. I hope you will stick to your choice and Berlin will become the long-term venue for this conference.

It is not yet clear what Europe's digital future holds. But it is high time to put forward the debate towards a realistic discussion of Europe's digital potential -- and focus on what needs to be done to realize that potential. It is up to us to decide how we want to live in the future and what role Europe is to play.

I am confident: Our actions alone will determine how Europe develops. We have Europe's future in our hands: you, as businesspeople, because it is your job to use your experience, your creative inspiration and your hard-headed economic thinking to bring about change; we, as political decision-makers, because it is our job to create conditions in which innovation can flourish, conditions in which as many people as possible will benefit from future developments and new products.

The digital revolution unleashed a process of radical change. This radical change is affecting every aspect of our lives -- not only our economic lives, but also our private and social lives. The new watchword is "disruptive innovation." This spirit of innovation is opening new possibilities in every area. At the same time it is giving rise to new risks and new challenges.

These challenges can't be avoided, given the scale of the changes now taking place. Some people are unsettled by these changes. They don't know if these changes are a blessing or a curse. Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA and the allegations made against the German BND have seriously undermined public trust in the way new technologies are used. In recent years, the phrase 'let's not talk about it on the phone' has become very topical once again.

But the trend towards conducting more and more of our social and economic lives on-line, however, makes trust in secure networks essential. The lack of trust could hamper innovation if we don't react properly. A political response is called for.

But a narrow national approach is no longer enough. We need international action. The debate on this issue is in full swing. Not only in Europe. But also beyond. It's time to act. Now!

Ladies and gentlemen,
Over the last decade new companies have emerged. They have developed into dominant players who are leading the former big beasts of the world economy on a merry dance. I take my hat off to these companies. Many of them have become so successful because they were very innovative. We in Europe need to ask ourselves why the Silicon Valley companies have become so dominant and identify Europe's past failings.

However much respect I may have for the achievements of some companies, it is clear that the economic iron rule of the internet age, namely that 'the winner takes it all', is at odds with our pluralist market economy. Moreover, this rule is killing innovation.

It must be possible for any idea and any standard to be challenged by a better idea or by a different standard!

Political action must and will be taken to guarantee fair opportunities for all. This is precisely why we in Europe have cartel and competition laws. And we will enforce those laws in order to ensure that anyone who wishes to invest is given a fair chance on the market.

Even now the Commission is looking very closely at the changes which digitization is bringing about in order to assure that this principle of a fair chance for all is not endangered. It is the politicians' task to create the best possible conditions for you and your companies, so that innovation and investment make sense and as many people as possible can benefit from high-quality products and services.

With that aim in mind, we in Europe need to do our homework quickly. We have missed the boat on far too many new developments. As a result Europe has an enormous amount of ground to make up in the area of digital infrastructure. So what exactly do we intend to do?

Firstly, the Commission put forward a proposal and the European Parliament and the Council agreed on an EU investment plan. Thanks to the EU guarantee and the leverage effect it will mobilize public and private investment to a volume of 315 billion Euro without creating new debt.

This will be used to support projects and investments among others in information and communication technologies in particular through digital content and services, telecom infrastructures of high speed and broadband network. These projects and investments will be implemented by companies. They will be the major beneficiaries of this investment plan.

The key will be to regain investor confidence -- to regain the confidence that Europe is a place worth investing in. You see: You are very welcome to spend your money here!

These European efforts will be supplemented by national activities, as Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel made clear this morning when speaking on behalf of the German Federal Government.

Secondly, in the digital sphere the EU is still fragmented. We are essentially divided into 28 national markets. I know that dealing with 28 national markets can make your lives complicated.

But I want to insist on one thing: Cultural diversity is and will remain one of Europe's defining strengths. We have different languages, different traditions and different regional and national characteristics. We attach a high value to enabling journalists, writers, inventors, artists, composers and other creators to be able to make a living from their work. And I would be very interested to hear your views on this topic. This is an important issue for most Europeans. If you follow for example the current debate on TTIP you see that people are very suspicious if they get the impression that these typical characteristics are under threat of global harmonization. Therefore, we should rather see this diversity as an asset. As something inherent to Europe and something which, if properly addressed, can restore trust.

Having said this, of course, one point should be clear at the same time: whenever the fragmentations in our internal market are unnecessarily discouraging investment, creating unjustified administrative burdens for companies or harming European consumers we need to overcome different national interests. And tackle this problem at a European level. Therefore improving our Europe-wide copyright, data-protection and consumer laws are not only in the interest of our citizens but also an asset for your next investments!

To make the digital internal market a reality, the Commission recently put forward proposals to facilitate cross-border e-commerce and enhance consumer protection. I"m sure that Commissioner Oettinger talked about this yesterday.

If we do everything that I have mentioned -- if we invest, if we create the digital single market and if we enforce fair competition -- then you as businesspeople will find in Europe conditions which are very favorable to innovation.

But our aim is not simply to copy existing, successful models. Instead, our aim must be to help European entrepreneurs and those who want to invest here to create the next 'big thing'. So in future, Europe might challenge the dominant US and Asian standards. That should be our goal. No matter how long the path leading to it seems to us today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Perhaps the current debate will also enable us to resolve the supposed contradictions between freedom and security.

Given the ever increasing volumes of data in circulation, how can we reconcile data protection with the changes brought by the digital revolution? Data protection is a key principle underpinning our European societies. It may well be that this European approach is more suited to meeting the needs of future generations.

There is scope for innovation in the area of Internet data security. As people and companies fear that their data stored on the global cloud may fall prey to economic espionage, an interesting business opportunity is opening up: there is the need for a new standard. I am sure that companies which want to or must protect their data opt for standards which offer them the greatest possible security. I am convinced that in the long run our higher data protection requirements will make Europe a more attractive place for businesses.

Let there be no misunderstanding: my aim is not to create artificial borders in the digital world. There will not, and should not, be any such thing as a European Internet. But I want us Europeans to shape the development of the Internet with our specific European approach:

  • I want to see an Internet which is not a legal vacuum;
  • I want an Internet in which individuals can assert their fundamental rights;
  • an Internet which is secure and based on relationships of trust;
  • an Internet characterized by pluralism and alternatives.

For this reason I suggested the development of a Bill of Digital Rights. This would open the debate not only to the digital natives but to all people in our society.

Let us work together to make this a reality. I urge you all to look upon Europe as your partner in that endeavor.

Thank you for your attention.