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Digital Single Market: Opportunities and Challenges

The European Commission’s aim to create a Digital Single Market could be one of the most important and ambitious initiatives ever attempted, but is it potentially a brave new world or an unattainable dream?

It is no surprise that we do not have a Digital Single Market in Europe yet as there are a substantial number of deep, complex issues that need to be resolved and not all are within the bailiwick of the EU Commission’s DG Connect unit.

Many of the challenges that need to be overcome are not only practical, such as the roll-out of broadband, but also cultural, reflecting inherent behaviours and thought
processes built up over time. These national, regional and cultural sentiments can run deep in our institutions and systems and it is not possible simply to tinker with some without considering the whole.

At a time when many are questioning the very fundamentals of the European Union and when significant international challenges have arisen, such as the end of Europe’s `safe harbour` agreement with the US, a way forward must be found.

We need the EU Commission to lead from the front and not simply act as a referee between competing parties and interests.

There also has to be a realisation that there are trade and economic issues at stake here and some of these challenges can only be resolved by strengthening and developing inter-governmental agreements. Now may be the time to consider a new chapter to the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services.

If we do not approach this in a holistic manner we will never fully overcome the underlying obstacles to achieving a Digital Single Market in Europe. This is why the EU Commission’s DG Connect is seeking to incorporate a deep range of interconnected views and objectives in its new framework.

A Digital Single Market affects everyone and not just those operating in the world of technology, media and communications. As they say about this increasingly single electronic world in which we live and make our living – `It’s Convergence, Stupid`.

However, while we may be moving towards the aim of a Digital Single Market with more determination than ever before, should we be aiming for something more? We need to ask ourselves why it is the US and not Europe that has produced industry giants like Apple, Ebay, Amazon and Microsoft. The impact of not being able to replicate conditions that inspire such innovation at a European level is really quite profound. We need to create a body of thought leadership that will propel debate on the reasons why Europe has struggled in this regard – and what we need to do to find a clear vision going forward.

Above all, in trying to create a Digital Single Market in Europe we must avoid limited zero-sum game outcomes.

Chris Watson is head of technology, media and communications at law firm CMS