A fourth industrial revolution for Europe: Yes, but how?

, by Gabrielle Heyvaert, Lorène Weber

A fourth industrial revolution for Europe: Yes, but how?
The organisers used the Slido online platform for the audience to be able to live-interact with the speakers. Photo: Gabrielle Heyvaert

The College of Europe (Bruges, Belgium) recently welcomed the European Commissioners for Transport, Violeta Bulc, and for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, for a “Citizens’ Dialogue” about the “fourth industrial (r)evolution” and its stakes for the European Union. What resulted from these debates?

Two speakers, one theme, a student audience. The format seeks to be modern, the exchange is interactive. On 6 May, the European Commissioner for Transport – the Slovenian Violeta Bulc – and the very popular Commissioner for Competition – the Danish Margrethe Vestager – discussed for one hour and a half the fourth industrial revolution, a concept developed by Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum, in his book The fourth industrial revolution (2016). If digitalisation and its growing place in our societies were central in the discussions between the two Commissioners, the way the future Commission wants to lead this revolution remained quite blurry.

Internet, the tool of the fourth industrial revolution

Internet is at the heart of the industrial revolution enhanced by Bulc and Vestager. The Commissioner for Competition, however, highlighted that we should not be naïve regarding the “commercial space” that Internet had become, and be aware of the web’s “hostility”, especially towards women, who self-censor themselves more than men, because they fear being insulted and harassed online. In an attempt at a dialectical approach which sometimes seemed a bit superficial, Violeta Bulc however recalled that Internet was one of the most democratic tools ever created, a formidable global network which created links between people. The fourth industrial revolution will allow, in her opinion, the coming of a connectivity era serving the global community.

“Human at the centre”: the main issues of artificial intelligence

If the two Commissioners welcomed the opportunities and perspectives brought by artificial intelligence, they however warned against the negative externalities that could come with them. Margrethe Vestager especially pointed out the risk of reproducing social or gender inequalities through artificial intelligence, as well as the risk of becoming the “flesh and blood” of machines and technologies that would take the decisions on our behalf, without us being able to understand or control them. Violeta Bulc also denounced the risk of “confiscation” of new technologies by a handful of “privileged people” who would be the only ones mastering them.

To the concerns that an important number of jobs would be lost because they’d be replaced by machines, Violeta Bulc answered that it had been the case for the three previous revolutions, but that numerous jobs would also be created thanks to this fourth industrial revolution. Moreover, she added that no matter how sophisticated or safe they are, technologies must always remain under human responsibility and control.

What roadmap to achieve the digital single market?

The Commissioners were speaking to an informed audience with regard to the difficulties and lack of competitivity faced by Europe in comparison with American and Chinese giants. Several participants brought up the fact that the fragmentation of the European market would not enable the achievement of a digital single market. For instance, to operate in all EU countries, a company still needs a copyright license from the 28 EU member states, which does not make Europe competitive against the USA or China, which have a unified market.

Moreover, some participants highlighted that the constraints created by the General Regulation on Data Protection (GDPR) were pushing the companies to settle outside the EU. To this, Margrethe Vestager answered that the EU had a pioneer role in terms of data protection, and that the size of the European market (500 million people) would enable the development of data protection services, and thus would be beneficial.

Violeta Bulc was also pleased with the EU-China joint statement signed last April, which reaffirms common objectives in favour of multilateralism. However, one may note that the “strategic outlook” published by the Commission in March marks a turning point in the Union’s positioning towards China, by considering it, indeed as a “partner”, but first and foremost as a “systemic rival”. On the question of whether China is a threat or an opportunity, the Commissioner mentioned that the EU should engage with China so that China understands that cooperation on a global scale can bring about sustainable results. Bulc did not evoke either the tensed context existing between some member states concerning the position to adopt towards China, which, through its “New Silk Road” or “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy, tends to control more and more European strategic infrastructures.

Despite this optimism, perhaps a little bit forced, the two Commissioners acknowledged the difficulties met by European companies when it comes to capital procurement and financing. Margrethe Vestager also regretted the lack of visibility of existing digital European companies, and exhorted the audience to be “curious” and to look for and try European digital products. The lack of trust from the European countries to give up their national legislations would also explain the absence of a digital single market in Europe, which would consist of single European legislation, applicable in all member states, instead of the current 28 different national ones.

Finally, Margrethe Vestager justified the European Commission’s prohibition of the Siemens-Alstom merger by highlighting that this merger presented the double risk of both stopping innovation and raising the prices. She also recalled that, of all the merger projects notified to the Commission, 3,000 were accepted and only 9 were refused. According to Vestager, “a European champion is someone faced by competitors”.

Whilst this dialogue produced a global analysis of the stakes inherent to the fourth industrial revolution, the two Commissioners however seemed a bit too enthusiastic about the competitiveness that the EU would manage to reach vis-à-vis China and the United States. Moreover, they presented no roadmap or guidelines concerning the European digital single market that should be achieved by the next mandate of the European Commission.

This article was updated at 6pm on 15 May.

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