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European president outlines tech vision to drive Europe

President of the European Commission has set out plans for a stronger European economy, with less reliance on US and Chinese tech giants

In her State of the Union address as the president of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen discussed several technology initiatives to support business recovery and drive innovation.

Discussing the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, von der Leyen said that compared to the 2008 financial markets crash, the EC expects 19 countries to be at pre-pandemic levels this year, with the rest following next. “Growth in the euro area outpaced both the US and China in the last quarter,” she said. “But this is only the beginning. And the lessons from the financial crisis should serve as a cautionary tale.”

Through an initiative called NextGenerationEU, the EU plans to invest in both short-term recovery and long-term prosperity, said von der Leyen. Along with addressing structural issues in the economy, she said: “We will invest in 5G and fibre. But equally important is the investment in digital skills. This task needs leaders’ attention and a structured dialogue at top level.”

According to von der Leyen, the NextGenerationEU initiative sets a clear direction for markets and investors. “Digital is the make-or-break issue,” she said. “And member states share that view. Digital spending in NextGenerationEU will even overshoot the 20% target.”

Among the areas von der Leyen highlighted in her speech was the importance of investing in European tech sovereignty. She said: “We have to double down to shape our digital transformation according to our own rules and values.”

Discussing the importance of the semiconductor industry in Europe, she said: “Semiconductors, those tiny chips that make everything work – from smartphones and electric scooters to trains or entire smart factories. There is no digital without chips. And while we speak, whole production lines are already working at reduced speed – despite growing demand – because of a shortage of semiconductors.”

But while global demand has exploded, von der Leyen warned that Europe’s share across the entire value chain, from design to manufacturing capacity, has shrunk. “We depend on state-of-the-art chips manufactured in Asia,” she said. “So this is not just a matter of our competitiveness. This is also a matter of tech sovereignty. So let’s put all of our focus on it.”

Last week, Reuters reported that Intel CEO Pat Gelsigner plans to build two European semiconductor foundries to manufacture chips, with the cost of these facilities reported to be about $80bn.

While the US dominates the tech sector, and Europe may lag behind it in terms of incubating technology innovation, the EC has taken a lead on regulating the tech sector, establishing the General Data Protection Regulation and now pushing through its Artificial Intelligence Act.

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