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View from Brussels: Europe’s dearth of digital warriors

75 million people in the European Union - more than the population of France - lack basic digital skills, according to a damning new report that warns of the widening tech gap.

A review of the EU’s digital literacy policies by auditors revealed this week that 75 million adults of working age do not have the skills needed to do 90 per cent of jobs, after schemes aimed at boosting tech savviness failed to have much impact.

The EU has little actual power over education but can spearhead initiatives of its choosing and fund them from the bloc’s trillion-euro budget. But few schemes materialised over the last few years: just 2 per cent from social funding was funnelled into digital education.

That is despite the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, regularly touting the digital economy as a priority for job creation and its other sustainability goals.

“Our review shows that the EU has long recognised the importance of basic digital skills for all citizens but there is still a lot to be done. Now is the ideal time to shed light on this issue,” said Iliana Ivanova, the auditor in charge of the review.

She added that “the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of basic digital skills for citizens” and that employment statistics prove that people with a good grounding in tech literacy find it easier to find jobs.

Between 2016 and 2018, a number of projects across Europe offered educational support to nearly 11 million people. But most of those were primary and secondary school students, worsening a growing generational digital divide.

There is now a target to bump up tech literacy to at least 70 per cent of EU citizens by 2025. In 2019, estimates pointed to a 56 per cent rate.

Despite past failures, the stars are aligning because all of the EU’s top policies are now geared around a ‘green and digital’ transition. That ranges from cleaning up the economy to preserving jobs and boosting industry.

The Commission hopes to get the go-ahead in the coming weeks to borrow €750 billion on the capital markets to fuel a landmark pandemic recovery fund, which will be split between the bloc’s 27 members.

It is the first time that Brussels has borrowed large sums of money on behalf of national governments, who will now have to submit requests to the Commission to access a hefty wodge of loans and grants.

Capitals have been told that these plans should not be mere ‘shopping lists’ for big infrastructure projects or short-term objectives. To get the cash, they need to be sustainable and future-leaning.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU official in charge of digital policies, said that “We will bounce back [from the pandemic]. Not by rebuilding the world as we knew it before but rebuilding it better and stronger.”

That means that initiatives aimed at creating digital whizzkids and teaching old dogs new tech tricks will certainly be eligible for funding. As well as filling the gap between generations, it could be a chance for less savvy countries to play catch-up.

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