Belgium to focus on a public sector European blockchain during its EU presidency

21 Nov 2023 | News

The country will promote development of a transnational blockchain infrastructure for the storage and management of official documents, minister for digitisation Mathieu Michel tells Science|Business

Mathieu Michel, Belgian minister for digitisation

Belgium will propose accelerating the development of a European blockchain infrastructure, to store official documents such as driving licences and property titles, when it assumes the presidency of the EU Council at the start of 2024.

This is one of four priorities, along with measures on artificial intelligence, skills and online anonymity, that are intended to promote digital sovereignty in Europe.

“Silos are the enemy of digitisation. Convergence is the answer if you want to be sovereign,” Mathieu Michel, Belgium’s secretary of state for digitisation told Science|Business. “A lot of countries are working on applications based on the blockchain; it would be a good idea to build them on a common infrastructure. But it has to be on a blockchain which is managed by the government,” he said.

Michel is proposing to reboot the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI) project set up by the European Commission in 2018, in collaboration with the European Blockchain partnership, made up of the 27 EU member states plus Norway and Liechtenstein.

The partnership has selected initial use cases for the infrastructure, including mutual recognition of diplomas, document traceability, and SME financing.

“That is a technical project. If we want to build a common infrastructure, it has to become a European project, and a political project,” Michel said.

EBSI would be renamed Europeum and be structured as European Digital Infrastructure Consortium (EDIC), a legal framework established in December 2022 to enable member states to implement multi-country projects. This is based on the European Research Infrastructure Consortium model under which member states combine resources to build and run large and expensive science facilities.

EDICs, which should contribute to EU’s Digital Decade 2030 objectives, are set up by the Commission in response to applications from at least three member states. The applicants are given a leading role in the governance of the projects, which can be based on new or existing infrastructure.

Europeum would be used for public administration, for example allowing driving licences and other documents to be recognised across the bloc, and facilitating procedures such as VAT declarations. It could also support applications, such as the digital euro, or digital twins of cities, to help identify things like flood risks.

Blockchain is so called because data is held in sequential blocks that are linked securely to each other. Data in a particular block cannot be changed retroactively without all subsequent blocks in the chain being altered also.

That means although the system can be open to multiple users, it is difficult to reverse or change what has been recorded. A hacker would have to gain access to every computer that holds a copy of the blockchain database, and at the same time, in order to tamper with it. The software also prevents inadvertent changes to data by regular users.

“In terms of security, transparency, and privacy, the blockchain can give control back to the citizen of the data that belongs to them,” Michel said. That is not possible on private blockchains, which usually involve servers outside the EU and are often based on the principle of data transparency, meaning public sector uses would come up against privacy concerns.

Member states have so far committed €1 million to the project, but Michel is hoping that as an EDIC, Europeum will unlock additional funding from the Commission.

Europeum will have its headquarters in Belgium. Italy, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Luxembourg, and Romania have signed up to the plan and will help to define its structure, but Michel says others will have the option of using the blockchain.

He has spoken to counterparts in Japan and South Korea about how Europeum could link into international infrastructure for documents to be recognised outside of Europe.

“The discussions we are having right now are to identify the first proof of concept we will deploy on the blockchain,” Michel said.

The partners will also have to decide on the technical aspects, such as whether the infrastructure will be built through public procurement; and address “philosophical” questions such as privacy.

The EU recently reached a deal to introduce an EU Digital Identity Wallet where citizens will be able to store official documents, but the text makes no mention of blockchain.

European algorithm agency

The Belgian presidency will also propose creating a ‘European Algorithms Agency’, to ensure the EU reaps the benefits of AI while managing the risks. Michel does not see the agency as having a regulatory role. “It would be more like a knowledge centre, which can give advice, and say be careful, that could be risky,” he said.

The agency would be staffed by experts and involve public and private cooperation, with Michel insisting governments must work with big tech companies which “have the power of innovation”. He suggests AI uses identified as high-risk could be required to seek the agency’s advice.

“The AI Act is interesting. But we must be aware that going too far in the AI Act brings the risk of slowing down the creativity of our startups, SMEs and industry,” Michel said. That legislation is currently the subject of heated debates between the European Parliament and member states over the approach to take with powerful foundation AI models.

“Our point during the presidency will be to say we need more governance, and not always focusing on regulation,” Michel said. “I think slowing down the rhythm of new regulations and focusing more on the implementation would be a good idea.”

Self-taught skills

In the push to reap the benefits of AI there is concern the European workforce lacks the necessary skills. Michel believes many relevant skills exist, but are not recognised. Belgium will push for a system to certify self-taught skills, such as those who have learned C++ by watching YouTube.

“Thinking innovation requires only diplomas is a mistake,” Michel said. “The way we identify people without a diploma is that they have no skills, but that’s not true.”

The system would be based on PIX, an online platform that is open for everyone to assess, develop, and certify their digital skills. Michel hopes to leverage the French company’s services at a European level.

“Innovation is evolving so fast, that two years after your diploma, you have to learn new skills. Lifelong learning is maybe not as compatible as before with the world of diplomas,” he said.

Online anonymity

Michel also wants Europe to fight back against fake online profiles and “bring back responsibility on the internet”, by introducing a public verification system based on users providing their ID.

There would still be an option to remain anonymous, but social media users could have the option of only seeing posts written by verified profiles. The system would also apply to e-commerce platforms and other websites, including scientific publications, which could be susceptible to impersonation or misinformation.

“If I succeed, there will be three important phases in the digital world,” he said. “The first phase was: internet is anonymous. And that’s a good thing. Then with the Digital Markets Act, the intermediary platforms are responsible. And now we are speaking about the responsibility of the user.”

Another measure that recently came into force and will remain an important topic for the Belgian presidency is the Chips Act, which aims to increase semiconductor production and research into next-generation quantum chips.

“Everybody knows how AI will have an impact on the way we build the future, but AI is deeply connected to the speed at which a chip can calculate,” he said. “If in Europe we have the most efficient chips in the world, we will have better artificial intelligence.”

Chips are a strategic priority for Belgium, as the country is home to the Imec research centre, which receives EU funding for the research and development of semiconductors.

There are also several major EU files that risk rolling over into the new year, including the AI Act and the pharmaceuticals reform. But Michel says Belgium will focus a lot of its attention on new projects it plans to bring to the table.

The key proposals all stem from the same conclusion: “Belgium alone cannot be sovereign if we speak about digitisation,” Michel said. “The smaller your country, the faster you understand that you have to live with standards.”

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