Covid-19 recovery a boost for European integration in digital and environmental spheres

Angela Merkel has made it clear what the priorities of her last EU Council presidency, which began July 1st, will be. The most vital is overseeing the bloc’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout. It will also be imperative to rekindle enthusiasm for the European project after some member states were excoriated for failing to extend a helping hand to their hard-hit neighbours during the peak of the pandemic. Surveys have clearly indicated that most European citizens believe the “EU did not rise to the challenge”.

The German government argued in its presidency programme that its six months at the helm of the EU are a chance “to make Europe strong again”. Ensuring that the bloc comes out of the worst economic downturn in its history with renewed purpose will require huge amounts of capital, as evidenced by the €750 billion EU recovery package and the €500 billion rescue fund put forward by Berlin and Paris. It will also require addressing longstanding gaps in European integration—particularly regarding sustainability and digitalisation.

Deep divisions over digitalisation

Policymakers in Brussels have long recognised the importance of swift and uniform digitalisation across the European bloc. It’s an issue that’s surged back to the fore as the pandemic has left countless Europeans working from home and relying on telemedicine.

In reality, however, progress has been both slow and fragmented. The most recent Digital and Society Index (DESI) reports, which looked at the EU-27’s progress in five policy areas including connectivity and the digitalisation of public services, only highlighted the divisions between member states.

While countries like European leader Finland have a high level of digitalisation, which allows their citizens to adapt well to remote working, and have carried out efficient and low-cost 5G spectrum auctions, other member states like Greece have years of digital development to catch up on. Bulgaria, languishing in the last place of the DESI report, has made especially poor progress. Some 24% of Bulgarians have never used the Internet, and a mere 29% of the country’s adult population are considered to have the basic digital skills essential for accessing information and services online.

Of particular concern, according to the DESI report, is the gap between some EU member states concerning their readiness to adopt 5G. Pundits have been concerned for a while that Europe is falling behind the US and China in the race to get citizens connected to the next-generation mobile network which could provide a “quantum leap in connectivity”.

A big part of the problem is the mechanisms by which European countries allocate 5G spectrum. Some countries see the allocation as an easy way to make money—meaning that as spectrum costs spiral, telecom operators are left with little cash on hand to actually install the new network. Other countries—10 out of the EU-27, according to the most recent DESI report—have yet to allocate any 5G spectrum at all.

Smoothing out these digital divides will require concerted effort and significant investment. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic downturn, however, has given European policymakers an unprecedented appetite for investing—as illustrated by the €750 billion recovery fund being considered by the EU.

Painting the continent green

Helping along the digital transition is one of the recovery plan’s two main aims, alongside making the European bloc more environmentally friendly. Indeed, 25% of all the funding is reserved for climate objectives. Spending will furthermore be allocated according to a “sustainable finance taxonomy”, meaning that funding must contribute to one of six goals, from controlling pollution to adapting to climate change.

The allocation of this funding should take into consideration that, like in the case of digitalisation, there are significant variations between the EU’s constituent countries in terms of environmental protection. The most recent report on how close the EU is to completing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows a stark rift between Scandinavia’s remarkable performance and Eastern Europe’s relatively slow progress.

Croatia, for example, has yet to tackle the thick cloud of smog which blankets its capital Zagreb every winter, brushing the problem aside even as pollution levels soar past legal limits and healthcare workers warn of an allergy epidemic induced by the poor-quality air. The situation is so bad that earlier this year Zagreb was classed in the top three most polluted cities in the world. In January, meanwhile, an investigation uncovered huge amounts of pharmaceutical pollution in Croatia’s largest river, the Sava.

Cyprus, which ranked last in the SDG report, has its own struggles with air pollution. Residents of the capital Nicosia apparently lose a year of their life expectancy thanks to the terrible air quality in the winter months; with a population of only 200,000, the city’s air is more heavily polluted than in Paris.

Nor is this the only way in which Cyprus is falling short on protecting the environment—widespread stone quarrying is essentially flattening an entire mountain range in what one journalist described as an “environmental massacre”.

The need to restart the European economy after months of lockdown is a unique chance to carry out the structural change needed to close these gaps between member states and accelerate the EU’s trajectory towards a digital, green future. European citizens, whether in Stockholm or Split, should have the same access to digital services and standards of environmental protection.

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