President von der Leyen’s speech at the high-level opening session of the 2021 Digital Assembly, “Leading the Digital Decade”

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Dear Prime Minister António Costa,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning. I am delighted to address you at the Digital Assembly in Sines. And of course I very much regret that I cannot be with you in person this morning.

This year’s Digital Assembly is very timely. Not even three months ago, we presented our vision for Europe’s digital transformation by 2030. It is about where we want to go. And who we want to be. We call it our “Digital Compass”.

It fits well that we are holding this Digital Assembly in Portugal today. As a seafaring nation, generations of Portuguese explorers knew how to sail across uncharted waters. The monument on the bank of the “Tejo”in Lisbon reminds us of the most important ones: Prince Henry the Navigator, who discovered Madeira and the Azores; Vasco da Gama who found the sea route to India. So I think it is fair to say: in Portugal, you know well how to navigate. We are lucky to have you as Council Presidency at this point in time!

But seriously: when you navigate, you do not only need a compass. You also need a vision. And you need a plan forward. Our Digital Compass is about all that. Like a compass with North, South, East and West, our European strategy has four cardinal points:

Digital skills, Infrastructures, Businesses, and e-Government.

To master the challenges of the digital age we must make progress on all four fronts.

First, skills: By 2030, we want, for example, 20 million IT specialists to be employed in the EU.

Second, infrastructures: By 2030, we want gigabit connectivity for all households, and 5G in all cities and villages.

Third, the digital transformation of businesses: By 2030, three out of four companies should use cloud, big data and AI.

And fourth: digital  public services. By 2030, all EU citizens should have access to electronic health records.

Today is an important day for our Digital COVID Certificate. Our EU gateway goes live. More than 20 Member States have tested it successfully. It will allow to verify all certificates across the continent. Everyone who has received a COVID-19 vaccine, a negative test result, or has recovered from the virus can get the European certificate. It’s for free and it must be recognised everywhere in the EU. It is a tangible example of how people benefit from digital progress in the EU.

It also matters how we’re doing things. The EU certificate is a prime example of digital tools that represent our values: The EU values privacy. No personal data will be exchanged or retained. The EU is inclusive. Whoever is not vaccinated, can get a digital certificate for test or recovery. Whoever does not have a smartphone, can get it on paper. With the certificate, we want to help people to move freely in times of pandemic. This is why it will only be in place for one year. Europe is a front-runner here and can set standards at the global level.

Let me give you another example: We want to offer to Europeans a new digital identity. An identity that ensures trust and protects users online. We are about to present our proposal. It will allow everyone to control their identity online, and to interact with governments and businesses, across the EU. Nobody should be forced to give more data away, than is necessary for the purpose at hand. To book a hotel room online, no-one needs to know where I am from and who my friends are. With our proposal, we are offering an alternative to the models of big online platforms. We believe in a human-centred digital transition.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I wanted to mention these examples because they showcase our digital ambition. This is about who we want to be, as Europeans. To capture this better, we will formulate a set of digital principles.

Such as: Access for all to the Internet; a secure online space; the right to learn digital skills; algorithms that respect people; the protection of children online. These important principles will complement the legal rights that already protect Europeans online. Like the protection of personal data. Or the freedom of expression. Just three weeks ago, we launched a wide consultation on these digital principles.

We want to listen to as many views as possible. From citizens, civil society, businesses, and administrations. We then want to enshrine these principles in a solemn declaration by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.

Europe’s digital principles shall guide our actions and initiatives. I already mentioned Digital Identity. Another example is Artificial Intelligence. Just a few weeks ago, we proposed our new legal framework on AI. It is the first such framework, worldwide.

It puts the individual at the centre. And will ensure that people’s safety and fundamental rights are protected. AI is yet another example of our ambition. We embrace new technologies. But we stand by our values. By setting new standards for our Single Market, and by inviting others around the globe to follow. That’s why I am glad to see how more and more private companies are already using technology for the better: Europe wants to match digital progress with responsibility.

Dear Prime Minister Costa,

I know that you are a strong ally in our digital ambition. I am grateful that the Portuguese Presidency has made the fair and inclusive transition a priority. Today you contribute to the debate with the Lisbon Declaration. With it, you call upon EU governments to commit to a digital transformation that aims to strengthen the human dimension. As the Declaration rightly points out: We must ensure that the digital transformation of our democracies has a purpose, and that no one is left behind.

And I know that also the European Parliament is very engaged in promoting our values and principles in the digital space. Since the early days of the pandemic, the Parliament has highlighted the essential role of access to the Internet for all. Because it allowed Europeans to continue learning, working and communicating during lockdown. So I am very pleased to see that our objectives as the three major EU institutions are very much aligned.

And even beyond: As we seek to set standards at the global level, we sense a lot of interest among our international partners. And this is why I think we are privileged to have Antonio Guterres addressing today’s Digital Assembly. Digital technologies play a key role to accelerate access to knowledge and education, for equality and participation and for economic growth and job creation. In his recent Roadmap to Digital Cooperation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked all countries to put human rights at the centre when making rules on digital technologies.

Our EU initiative on the digital principles is a contribution to that process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I started my intervention with a reference to Portugal’s seafaring history. We depend much more on global trade than ever before. But what keeps our economies going today are not just shipping routes, but also data flows. These need stable, secure and speedy infrastructures. To reach our connectivity targets, we will need major investments. The Recovery and Resilience Facility gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity for that. But our digital leadership also depends on strong connectivity with the rest of the world. This is why I am glad that later this morning, you will inaugurate “EllaLink”.

EllaLink is the new submarine cable that connects Europe with Latin America. The first direct high-speed connection between the two continents. It will be a digital highway for joint research and education between Europe and Latin America. It will boost business, scientific and cultural exchanges. Above all, it will help ensure the security, stability and resilience of the global open Internet, on which our economies and societies depend.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

EllaLink is more than a cable. It symbolises our renewed partnership with Latin America. This sets an example for our engagements with partners around the world. For our Digital Decade to be successful, we need to build more, strong, international, digital partnerships. First and foremost with the United States, with whom we want to set up a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council. But also with other partners such as India.

Europe and India just launched a new connectivity partnership at our Summit in Porto, a few weeks ago. The EU will work hard to lead the way towards a wide, open coalition of partners around the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we embark on the digital transition, we Europeans are guided by our ambition. We are determined to live up to our principles at home, and in our work on the international scene. Our Digital Compass shows us the way. The work on our digital principles has kicked off. Today’s Lisbon Declaration provides tailwind. So do the valuable contributions by the European Parliament and the United Nations. As Europeans, we want to be the global leader of a digital transformation that puts people at its heart.

You can count on Europe.

I wish you a very successful Digital Assembly.

Thank you.

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