From the DG’s desk: Generating value through values?
30 November 2020
Tough times tend to be a test of the things we hold dear, and this exceptional year has shown that once again to be true. The crisis we have faced has exposed the fragility of basic values we have long taken for granted: free movement, solidarity, education, to name a few. And yet in hindsight the crisis has also highlighted their... value. As we get started on building the recovery in the year ahead, can we bring that renewed commitment to our shared values to bear? How can our values generate value – for our industries and for our continent as a whole?
Our common European values have been much invoked these last few months as setting us apart. Yet I find the concept often remains vague. “We want to lead the way, the European way, to the Digital Age: based on our values, our strength, our global ambitions,” said President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address earlier this year. In reality, how distinctive are our European values? Human rights and freedom of speech are fundamental but might be considered more universal than European, even if they are sadly not universally applied in practice. Some may even question how much they are truly shared throughout the European Union itself. As fundamental as they seem, they can paradoxically be hard to pin down.
Europe’s motto ‘united in diversity’ underpins a vibrant internal market: in both regulation and societal mindset, we have a healthy scepticism of concentrated market power.
However, I would argue there are two core European values in particular that give our industries a distinctive edge. First, we may not have the sheer size of a market like China, but we have mastered the power of diversity. Europe’s motto, ‘united in diversity’, also underpins a vibrant internal market: in both regulation and societal mindset, we have a healthy scepticism of concentrated market power. It is no coincidence that none of the biggest tech giants are based in Europe. Dominant companies, which also attract outsized political attention, can become an obstacle to progress. Europe’s flourishing ecosystem of SMEs – generating so much of our wealth, employment and cutting-edge technological leadership – is distinctly and characteristically European. In Europe’s technology industries, constituting a third of its total industry, 90% are SMEs. I am convinced this will prove to be a powerful asset.
Second, there is the social, citizen-centric philosophy at the heart of Europe’s economic fabric, reflected in a respect for the role that citizens play in shaping our industrial success. The conviction that our market should work for citizens rather than the other way around is at the heart of many of the current policy discussions around the digital transition, from AI to data management to smarter energy systems. It is, famously, why Europe has taken the lead on setting the global standard on data privacy with the GDPR. In today’s post-truth world, the transformative technological shifts required for the digital and green revolution will only succeed if they can rely on societal trust. Because this human-centric approach to technology is baked into our innovation model, Europe is uniquely positioned to lead the way globally as we tackle the biggest challenges of our time.
This year has highlighted the opportunity for Europe to assert its global leadership, based not just on the weight of our market, but on values that will prove to be a competitive strength.
Leaning on our values in times of stress can either strain or strengthen them – or both. The strain has been vivid at times and perhaps most so right now in the dispute over the rule of law that is holding up the budget and the urgently needed Recovery and Resilience Facility. But, for my part, I believe this year also serves as a reminder of our strengths. It has highlighted the opportunity for Europe to assert its global leadership, based not just on the weight of our market, but on values that will prove to be a competitive strength. Let’s look forward to building that leadership in the new year ahead.