Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda delivered this speech on 22 October 2014 during the Annual Broadband Forum, held in Amsterdam:


Two Europes or One Europe?




Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

It is my pleasure to address you today for the last time as European Digital Commissioner. I don’t want to waste that chance, or your time, so you will forgive me for being direct.

I am very worried that Europe is missing large parts of the digital opportunity. I am worried that Europe will continue to stagnate, that we will let look at success stories but let them pass by.

My starting point 5 years ago was to Get Every European Digital. Why? Because then you have a win-win. I have never believed the digital revolution is about gadgets. It’s about people. It’s about including them in a new way of organising our economy and society. It’s not about whether you have an iPhone6 or an iPhone5.

We have made some great progress in the last 5 years, but I am sad to say that Europe is not yet fully ready and able to use that new mind-set.

Let me tell you a story about that.

First, we can indeed be proud that Europe is the only continent where every person really can access at least basic broadband. 7 in 10 go online at least once a week; nearly every business is connected by choice. But we are lying to ourselves if we just give ourselves applause for this.

Why do I say that?

I was in Seoul in South Korea in June, and I had the pleasure to take a tour of the Samsung research campus. It became to clear to me many of us already knew: Europe once led the world in innovation and in digital technology, but today we don’t.

The Koreans displayed the history of communications technology. Every item in that exhibition before 1940 was European: telephone, radio, television, computing devices. Then the United States became more prominent. But even so, after the war it was still Europe that developed the mobile phone, the CD, Bluetooth and the first personal computer, and finally the GSM standard for mobiles, and text messaging. But then with the spread of the internet the US started taking over. When we looked over the last 30 years of the exhibit, we saw Asian innovation taking over Europe and rivalling the US. Europe was fading into the background.

And then I am confronted with the statistics. For every Sweden or UK or Netherlands (who have 4G and where nearly everyone is online), we also have a Germany and Italy and the rest of Europe. There fast broadband infrastructure and skills are average at best, sometimes non-existent.

I ask myself why did Europe stop inventing and investing? Why did Europe lose interest?

But then I remember that we cannot say that the whole continent has failed. No, there is a different problem.

We have a problem today of two Europes: a digital Europe and an analogue Europe. Of digital mind-sets and analogue mind-sets.

These are two Europes that rarely talk to each other. Two Europes that hold back all of Europe because they are not in sync.

There is a Europe that is full of energy and digital ideas. We have a growing start-up scene with thousands of people who are the smartest in the world at what they do. From Skype to Spotify to SAP, from Rovio to to Campus Party. We have a young generation that uses their digital devices and apps and new ways of building communities and businesses.

This Europe is optimistic. This is the Europe where half of new jobs come from – the ICT-enabled jobs. This Europe is mobile and flexible. This Europe hates barriers and looks for new opportunities. This is the Europe that likes innovation – and is happy to use Uber and Air BnB.

But there is a second Europe. It is a Europe that is afraid of this digital future. They worry about where the new middle class jobs will come from. They don’t want to jump off what they see as a digital cliff. They like the comforting idea of putting up walls; to many people it makes sense to restrict Americans and Asians and protect against their innovations. They tend to be older. They tend to want strong regulations protecting what they know, instead of taking a chance on what they don’t know.

Neither side is 100% right. But corporate leaders and political leaders have a choice about how lead people to the more realistic and hopeful side of those debates. They have a choice about how to approach their responsibility to lead.

It comes down to this question: is Europe’s leadership class willing to be excited about innovation and start-ups? Or is Europe going to be exhausted by using up its energy safeguarding vested interests, and holding up ancient barriers?

We need to ask if we can reinvent ourselves. And if we are willing to be led to a digital renaissance based on an open mindset and a belief that we can be the best if we want to be.

I still don’t know how Europe will answer. I believe this renaissance is possible, but in my mind there are too many leaders still refusing to take up their responsibility.

The EU itself is getting the message: there are three men replacing me. We have made big strategic investments in essential research from 5G to electronics and robotics and more.

But you can’t shape this world only from the top.

Leaders at other levels and with different job descriptions have a responsibility to engage with this new digital world.

Of course they can set limits and standards, but digital is a fact now. It’s not a choice, it’s a fact. And it is no longer acceptable to ignore it.

You are not a responsible leader if you ban services and categories of service without ever using them, or seeing if there is a way to compromise.

You are not a responsible leader if you think we can solve tomorrow’s problems by recreating past rules and industry structures.

You are not a responsible leader if don’t understand that coding is the new literacy.

It’s not easy to take responsibility – but that is what leadership is.

I am not proud to admit what I got wrong in my career, but failure is an inevitable part of progress. I feel confident enough to stand up here in front of you and admit that I made many mistakes, maybe than successes.

I will stand up here and say that if I had my time as Digital Commissioner again, I would have set fewer targets. I would have pushed the telco industry harder in the face of inevitable changes in the digital value chain. They see the challenges but are locked into old business models and need an external push for change. I would have moved sooner on deregulation and net neutrality. I would have taken control of the Connecting Europe Facility proposal =earlier, before the funding for it was slashed by national leaders.

It’s all hard to say and it’s all true.

With that in mind, I urge you to be sceptical about the fact that you don’t hear similar things from other tech and telecoms leaders, and rarely do you hear it from other political leaders.

Why don’t they stand up here on this stage and say to you what they say to me in private: “we got it wrong on mobile roaming. Roaming fees don’t belong in a single market.”

Why don’t the American companies stand up here and say: “we trusted our government too much, and we put our customers’ privacy at risk and we are sorry, as well as angry for being taken advantage of.”

Why don’t European leaders stand up on a stage and say, “We shot ourselves in the foot by not creating a digital single market sooner. Now we need to compromise and catch up, please support us so we can get more competitive. Support us so we can, keep manufacturing in Europe, and enable entrepreneurs to create new jobs.”

It’s all true.

For five years I have asked stakeholders and ministers what they would do in my shoes. And for five years I have been hearing about what they would like Europe to do for them.

After 5 years I am tired of it.

It is not enough to come to Brussels and complain or put your hand out for money. It is not enough to ask what Europe can do for you. Europe is you!

Europe is never going to grow again unless we see that we have to learn again how to compromise and face the future based on that compromise.

Let me borrow from Elvis Presley. We need “a little less confrontation and a little more action.”

Yes we need debate before we take action, I remain a democrat. But please let’s not have endless and pointless parallel conversations.

If our conversations are about the next year instead of the next generation, we will fail.

If our conversations are always about how other people need to change to make our lives easier, we will fail.

If our conversations ignore the grassroots efforts of our young digital talents, in favour of carving up markets amongst old companies, we will fail.

Those grassroots efforts are real. Just look at an initiative like EU Code Week. It did not exist 18 months ago, and last week there were 3,000 events across Europe. Self-organised, mostly, with some help from tech companies, mostly.

This is the Europe that isn’t waiting for leaders to solve their problems. They are just out there fixing the problem themselves, with very little help from Europe’s leadership class.

That is one of the two Europes – optimistic and active and building a better Europe. We need more of that.

We need to bring that mindset to ideas like Jean Claude Juncker’s vision of a 300 billion euro investment programme in infrastructure.

Can you really imagine such an investment that puts digital in the middle or bottom of the priority list? That would be simply crazy.

But the second and greater risk is that there is no investment programme at all if Europe let’s itself be sucked into a negative, can’t-do attitude.

Juncker is right to propose this vision. And you can all be part of this vision.

With that optimistic, forward-looking, pragmatic mind-set it will be so much easier to end the obsessions about what regulations are written in Brussels. Because the mindset matters more.

When we do write regulation in Brussels that mindset should apply: optimistic, forward-looking and pragmatic. And we need to finish – quickly – the regulations we start!

Once again – it’s about a little less confrontation and a little more action.

I want to see one Europe, not two Europes.

I can still remember what war was like, and what Europe looked like after the war – my whole childhood, my university, my life as a national Minister: I spent all of it during a time of Two Europes.

And if I believe anything in this world it is that we cannot go back to a world of Two Europes.

But healing these new divisions starts with everyone in this room. We agree on more than we disagree on. We are part of something bigger than our own opinions, our own company, our own country.

We are part of one Europe – and it is time to compromise and start building it again.


Originally published here