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Digital sovereignty from an SME perspective

From technological dependency to a lack of skills, Europe’s digital SMEs face an uphill challenge in driving the EU’s digital sovereignty agenda.

The European DIGITAL SME Alliance organised the Digital SME Summit on Monday (13 November), the largest network of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) small and medium enterprises in Europe, representing more than 45,000 enterprises.

At the event, experts addressed how artificial intelligence, competition, skills, sustainability, and innovation are shaping the landscape for Europe’s digital SMEs.

US influence and SMEs’ challenges

According to Laurenţiu Plosceanu, Vice-President of the European Economic Social Committee (EESC), “for far too long, concerns have been expressed” about relying on non-EU tech companies.

Plosceanu believes that this “heavy reliance on non-EU based companies is limiting the use of strategic autonomy in the digital world”; therefore, the “economic influence of non-US based companies cannot be downplayed”.

To move the dial, strong cooperation is needed between EU member states, the vice president said. Moreover, investments in digital capacities, education and vocational training, and infrastructure would also be essential in his view.

Yet, “SMEs face huge challenges in adopting human basic digital technologies,” he said. Some have issues keeping up “with the pace of digitalisation in their industry”, particularly in the case of processes that “require a high upfront initial cost”.

He stressed that improving the digital framework would be a key element to support digital SMEs and facilitate their participation.

Amaryllis Verhoeven, Head of Unit, Digital Transformation of Industry at European Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), said, “We need to have traditional service providers here, in Europe”.

On the EU’s dependence on technology from overseas, Oliver Grün, President of the DIGITAL SME Alliance, said: “We will never overcome it by regulations. We urgently need innovations.” In his view, a lack of skills also causes difficulties, and a different education system would be essential to tackle these problems.

However, Francesca Bria, former President of the Italian Innovation Fund and Professor at University College London’s Institute for Public Purpose, said that “European harmonised rules” are needed and that she does not believe that “regulation competes with innovation. I think they have to go together.”

Digital sovereignty

“A digitally sovereign Europe is a Europe that can choose,” said Vittorio Bertola, Head of Policy and Innovation at Open X-Change, the largest independent email provider in the world. He also referred to the influence of the US companies, saying that their prevalence reduces the possibility of choice.

Grün highlighted the importance of designing “our own digital products” and not simply using them, adding that digital sovereignty is more than a tool because it is also connected to political sovereignty. He also thinks the EU should “stay open to all technologies”, including open-source and closed-source technologies.

Data outside of the EU

“An estimated 92% of all the data of the Western world is stored on US servers,” pointed out Plosceanu.

According to him, such data can range from online data from social media to public data administered by national governments. This is why it would be “critical to developing a cloud and data infrastructure, addressing the huge imbalance of the cloud and data storage market being almost completely dominated by non-EU companies”.

Verhoeven said that DG GROW’s priorities are “unlocking the value of data for Europe, making sure that European companies have access to the data and also making sure that there is a trustworthy environment” in which privacy is protected.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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