Digital sovereignty from the perspective of SMEs –

Digital sovereignty from the perspective of SMEs –

From technological dependence to lack of skills, Europe’s digital SMEs face an uphill challenge in driving the EU’s digital sovereignty agenda.

The SME Digital Summit was organized by the European Digital SME Alliance on Monday (13 November), the largest network of ICT (information and communications technology) SMEs in Europe, representing more than 45,000 companies.

At the event, experts looked at how AI, competition, skills, sustainability and innovation are shaping the landscape for digital SMEs in Europe.

American influence and challenges for small and medium enterprises

According to Lorencio Plucino, Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), “concerns have been expressed for a very long time” about reliance on technology companies from outside the EU.

Plosino believes that this “high dependence on non-EU companies limits the use of strategic autonomy in the digital world”; Therefore, “the economic impact of non-U.S.-based companies cannot be underestimated.”

To move the dial, strong cooperation between EU member states is needed, the Vice President said. Moreover, investments in digital capabilities, education, vocational training and infrastructure will also be essential in his view.

However, he said, “SMEs face enormous challenges in adopting human-core digital technologies.” Some are having trouble keeping up with “the pace of digital transformation in their industries,” especially in the case of operations that “require a high initial upfront cost.”

He stressed that improving the digital framework will be an essential element to support digital SMEs and facilitate their participation.

“We need traditional service providers here in Europe,” said Amaryllis Verhoeven, Head of the Digital Transformation of Industry Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW).

Regarding the EU’s dependence on technology coming from abroad, Oliver Grün, head of the Digital SME Alliance, said: “We will never overcome it through regulation. We urgently need innovations.” In his view, the lack of skills also causes difficulties, and a different education system will be necessary to address these problems.

However, Francesca Pria, former head of the Italian Innovation Fund and professor at the Institute for Public Purposes at University College London, said there was a need for “harmonised European rules” and that she did not believe “regulation competes with innovation”. “I think they should go together.”

Digital sovereignty

“A digitally sovereign Europe is a Europe that can choose,” said Vittorio Bertola, head of policy and innovation at Open X-Change, the world’s largest independent email provider. He also pointed to the influence of American companies, saying that their spread reduces the possibility of choice.

Groen stressed the importance of designing “our own digital products” and not just using them, adding that digital sovereignty is more than just a tool because it is also linked to political sovereignty. He also believes the EU should “remain open to all technologies”, including open source and closed source technologies.

Data outside the European Union

“An estimated 92% of all the Western world’s data is stored on American servers,” Plosino noted.

According to him, this data can range from online data from social media to public data managed by national governments. That’s why it will be “crucial for the development of cloud and data infrastructure, addressing the huge imbalance in the cloud and data storage market that is almost entirely dominated by non-EU companies.”

Verhoeven said DG GROW’s priorities are “unlocking the value of data for Europe, making sure that European companies have access to data and also making sure there is a trustworthy environment” in which privacy is protected.

(Edited by Luca Bertozzi/Natalie Weatherald)

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