EU Council takes a step closer to a deal with Parliament on digital infrastructure plan

14 Mar 2019 | News

The core elements of proposed €9.2B digital infrastructure programme are agreed, but the final budget will not be fixed until the next Parliament. A new space programme also moves forward.

The European Union’s planned €9.2 billion digital-infrastructure programme took a step closer to reality, as ministers endorsed a deal with the European Parliament on the core elements of the programme.

The EU Council, meeting 13 March, accepted a “common understanding” with Parliament negotiators on what the seven-year Digital Europe programme will do from its planned start date in 2021. While they have yet to agree on the budget – that likely won’t come until next year – their action clears an important political hurdle for the programme.

The Council’s provisional deal adds to Digital Europe a goal of “reinforc[ing] the [European] Union’s strategic autonomy.” That phrase, analysts say, is intended to underline the importance of Europe using more of its own technology rather than relying on US or Asian products and services. Strengthening Europe’s infrastructure in computing and communications, in the face of dominant US and Asian competitors, is a prime aim of the programme.

The deal also puts the implementation of the programme’s cybersecurity projects under separate regulation now being negotiated by the Council and Parliament. This move is intended to link Digital Europe to broader EU policy on cyber-security.

Separately on 13 March, the Council also approved a similar kind of provisional deal with the Parliament on the EU space programme, which will establish a new EU agency in Prague to integrate all of the EU’s current space activities; these are jointly operated with the European Space Agency, which is not part of the EU. Like Digital Europe and other major funding programmes currently being negotiated, the space programme’s proposed €16 billion budget will depend on the outcome of negotiations over the EU’s overall budget for 2021 to 2027.

The Commission proposed Digital Europe in September last year as a way for the Commission and the EU member states to jointly procure and share infrastructure in high performance computing, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. The programme will also provide resources for boosting digital skills, promoting public sector use of advanced digital technologies and the formation of innovation hubs to give small businesses access to high-tech infrastructure.

The Commission wants the EU contribution of €9.2 billion to Digital Europe to be matched by participating member states. For now, how much each national government will actually put in remains to be seen.

Another unresolved issue is to what extent foreign countries can participate in the programme. The Council has yet to take an official position on that, because it wants to settle it as part of the broader budget negotiations.

In November last year, the Parliament’s research committee drew up a single, stricter set of rules for all countries outside the European Economic Area. Some MEPs wanted to rule out foreign participation altogether, on the grounds that, unlike the Horizon Europe research programme, Digital Europe’s explicit purpose is to build up European capabilities.

That means third countries used to participating in EU programmes, such as Switzerland and Israel, still have no certainty on whether Digital Europe will be open to them, and on what terms. The same is true for the U.K. after Brexit.

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