In a debate with Finland's Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen, EU's local and regional representatives called on the EU to ensure all regions and their citizens benefit from the digital and ecological transitions that are shaping our societies. The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) adopted on 9 October two opinions requested by Finland's Presidency of the Council of the EU, which focus on tackling the digital divide and ensuring cohesion and solidarity for all Europeans.
With the goal of achieving carbon-neutrality in the EU by 2050, Finnish Minister Tuppurainen said, "It is the responsibility of the EU together with other major economies to take the leading role in the transition to digital, sustainable and climate neutral economy. Transition should be seen as an opportunity. We need to embrace and shape the changes brought about by the green transition, technological evolution and globalisation, so that no-one is left behind."
The Minister added that, "Cohesion policy significantly contributes to sustainable and inclusive growth in all EU regions and helps us tackle the challenges the EU is facing. It is an important tool in stimulating sustainable economic growth and reducing regional disparities. At the same time, the future Cohesion policy needs to be more result-oriented, efficient and thematically focused."
Karl-Heinz Lambertz, President of the European Committee of the Regions, said, "All regions and cities must reap the benefits of the digital economy if we are to build a competitive, inclusive and sustainable Europe. The digital transformation of our economies goes hand in hand with the economic, social and territorial cohesion of Europe. It will help not only create jobs, but support regions and cities, particularly in rural and transition areas, make the urgent shift to a carbon-neutral future, which Europe must achieve by 2050. However, without sufficient investment, regions and cities will not be able to deliver. The size and form of the next EU budget will define our common future for the coming years. Cuts to regional investment and centralising funds will only hold Europe back."
The first of the two opinions points out that access to and active participation in the digital society are key to successful future local and regional development, and highlights digital cohesion as an important additional dimension to the traditional concept of economic, social and territorial cohesion defined in the EU Treaties. Nevertheless, the CoR regrets that the priorities of the incoming European Commission's political agenda do not place enough emphasis on an inclusive Digital Single Market that benefits all citizens throughout the European Union.
According to the rapporteur Anne Karjalainen (FI/PES), Member of Kerava City Council, "Digital transformation needs to be built on a sustainable, competitive and human-driven data economy in the EU. Instead of technology-driven product development, attention should be paid to developing human-centric techniques, services and products, including user-centred design, co-creation and rapid piloting."
To guarantee the right to connectivity for every European citizen, the CoR is calling for more support for the deployment of high-speed broadband and 5G networks in local communities, regardless of their size and population density. Ms Karjalainen's opinion also calls for more investment in digital skills and media literacy, cybersecurity and consumer protection in the field of digital economy, and highlights the role of regional networks of digital innovation hubs in the implementation of the new Digital Europe programme.
Digitalisation and the introduction of smart solutions in public services, in particular transport and energy sectors, are also key to accelerating sustainable development at local and regional level. An opinion drafted by Andries Gryffroy (BE/EA), Member of the Flemish Parliament, focuses on smart cities' role in guaranteeing just transition toward climate neutrality and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals at local level.
Rapporteur Mr Gryffroy stressed that, "Cities and communities have an important role to play in the transition to a resource-efficient, climate-neutral and biodiverse Europe. We need to create more and better opportunities to help and support local and regional actors in this evolution. A bottom-up approach, with smart actions evolving out of local cooperation will be necessary. This inclusivity is equally necessary to close the digital gap as to make sure that the weakest parties are not left behind in the transition towards a digital society."
Cohesion policy is the EU's main funding source for improving connectivity: in the EU's current multiannual financial framework (2014-2020), 6 940 million euros of ESIF funding has been allocated to broadband roll-out mainly from the European Regional Development Fund. By the end of 2020, it is expected that the funding will help 14,6 million additional households to access broadband; 77 500 companies to get support to enhance their use of ICT services and 41,7 million people to benefit from improved health services, including e-health. Funding is also provided from the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and Connecting Europe Facility, including the Broadband Fund launched in 2018. Read more.
Since 2017, the CoR has been working together with the European Commission in a joint Broadband Platform, where local decision-makers and experts have been exploring solutions for the deployment of faster, better and sustainable high-speed broadband in all European regions, working towards eliminating the digital divide due to geographical location or market failure. The platform is extending its work to cover wider aspects of digital society and economy. The Digital Europe for All position paper, which was prepared by CoR President Lambertz and First Vice-President Markku Markkula, was presented at the Digital Assembly 2019.
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