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Six months in the spotlight of Europe

Estonia, end of December: it means Christmas markets, snowy weather and warm cups of tea, as well as, for this year, the end of an experience that has changed for some time the face of a city and a country. The Estonian semester of EU Presidency of the European Council is in its final stages, and the time has come for some conclusions on those months that have seen Tallinn becoming one of the crossroads of Europe.

‘Unity through balance’, the chosen motto for the semester, could not introduce the priorities of the Estonian government for this EU presidency any better: the creation of an innovative European economy, a safer and more secure Europe, an effort towards inclusiveness and sustainability, a digital space centred on the free movement of data.

A number of events, countless talks and meetings, statements and declarations. We reached out to the people who have contributed to making it possible and had a conversation with Maris Hellrand, Foreign Media Adviser of the Government Office for EU2017EE, to put things in perspective and place recent developments in the right context.

The strategy of the Estonian government seemed to be tailored on discussing different topics with a similar approach, centred on the paths to digitization. Has it turned out to be a consistent plan, considering the Estonian context as one of the most advanced on the matter in Europe?

The digital topics have been a horizontal dimension of the Estonian presidency priorities and part of the discussion on all policy areas. Digital is not just a keyword or a thing in itself. We have started a discussion in Europe in many different areas of life to understand how digital solutions can make everyday life easier – from fisheries to space, from health to taxation.

The aim was to reach an agreement about how this can benefit Europe in the best conceivable way and make clear that, by ignoring these questions, Europe would lag behind in the global competition. Digital topics were discussed at 60 events out of 275 held in Tallinn – this number highlights the scale and importance of the issue. [But] Estonia is holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU for 6 months. The EU is like a large ship: a change of course is time-consuming, therefore we have agreed about our goals with the two next presidencies – Bulgaria and Austria.

What has been the feedback so far on the job done, especially from other EU leaders? Can Estonia be at the forefront of policy-making processes on e-Government at a European level? 

With Estonia’s reputation as a digital front-runner, the expectations of other Member States have been high, as [high] has been the curiosity and readiness to have an open mind for this approach. Ahead of the Tallinn Digital Summit, the expectation was very clear from both the EU institutions as well as Member States for Estonia to drive exactly this topic. The signal was: you know digital, so we trust you. The feedback from the European leaders has been very positive. The conclusions of digital Europe drawn by the Estonian Prime Minister Ratas after the summit were adopted during the European Council meeting in October.

Also, with several practical steps to further digitalize the work of the Council of the EU, Estonia has left a mark – be it the development of the paperless presidency, that will be carried forward by the following presidencies or the first digital signature given to a EU legislative act.

Is free movement of data the prerogative to give ground for the realization of Digital Single Market and most of the policy recommendations listed in the Tallinn Declaration?

The digital single market is inconceivable without the free movement of data within the EU. The free movement of data is a broader goal that is reflected in all of the chapters of our digital programme and has been discussed in every council formation and presidency conferences. We reached in Europe a collective understanding of the importance of the issue and that it is necessary to abolish barriers to the free movement of data between the Member States. We also made good progress towards achieving an agreement on the free flow of non-personal data regulation.

In order to make the EU eGovernment Action Plan a reality, is a common European strategy possible when not all the Member States find themselves at the same starting blocks? Some countries might need to fill certain gaps first, and then start to think of further integrated policy development

European digital ministers (EU member states and EFTA countries) signed the Tallinn e-government declaration on 6th October that agreed on the joint action plan for the next 5 years, in order to develop e-government services within the member states as well as cross-border between the member states. There is a clear political will among all Member States to implement the action plan and to make the e-government services available to all citizens across the European Union.

Can digitization contribute to foster equality trans-nationally in terms of possibilities and employability in a changing labour market, in accessing healthcare sector services and in the interaction of the citizens with the public administration?

The digital revolution requires a completely new approach to education and skills [creation]. The EU leaders are very aware of this challenge – the future of work was discussed at Tallinn Digital Summit and the October European Council underlined in its conclusions the need to invest in digital skills, to empower and enable all Europeans.

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