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The Future of digital policy in Belgium and the European Union

Belgium has been chairing the Council of the EU since January 2024. A period for which our country had set an ambitious agenda, digital policy included. On the 9th June, the European elections are held and that means the Belgians will have to rush to push through as many policy files as possible before the end of the legislature. How do the Belgian presidents responsible for digital policy deal with this time pressure? We attended the EU presidency event on digitalisation in Ghent and summed up our conclusions:  

In the past two months, the presidency has focused on wrapping up the legislative agenda of 2019-2024, while starting from March, the presidency will have to focus on shaping the agenda for the 2024-2029 cycle. Traditionally, our country always assumes the role of ‘honest broker’ during such negotiations and would never take a hard stand on files. But as the legislature comes to an end in the middle of our presidency period, Belgium has decided to shift up a few gears to bring council conclusions to a successful outcome.  

For digital policy, Federal Minister Petra De Sutter and State Secretary Mathieu Michel jointly assumed the role of chair of the Telecoms Council. The 2-day conference ” Tomorrows Tech Today” on digital policy within the Belgian EU presidency that they jointly organised was the logical extension of this. We, digital experts of Political Intelligence, were present and witnessed a symbiosis of different, important aspects within digital policy for the future of Belgium and Europe. 

The division of roles was clear: Minister De Sutter focused mainly on digital inclusion and green IT, while State Secretary Michel focused on virtual ID, responsibility online and transparency of algorithms. Nonetheless, we noticed a lot of engagement towards each other. Michel took part in the discussion on De Sutter’s programme and vice versa, showing great collegiality towards each other despite their totally different political orientations. Their conclusions on the other hand were more divergent. 

During the first day as a ‘green’ Minister, De Sutter naturally emphasised the importance of the green transition, which must go hand in hand with the digital transition. For her, it is definitely not a zero-sum game. In doing so, she made the beautiful metaphor that the two should be seen as dance partners. You dance with two and you continue with two until the dance is successfully concluded. 

Her recommendations were simple and clear: Belgium is convinced that a digital and green transition should go hand in hand and the EU should continue to work towards this at all levels of government across its member states. However, it must also convince the private sector that a combination of green and digital transition is the most desirable outcome within their companies. In the future, Europe should link all future digital targets to green initiatives and only approve them if this is the case. 

During the second day of the conference, State Secretary Michel, as a liberal, focused more on the importance of innovation and on how our governments should stimulate this more. He believes it is the responsibility of all the governments of member states to build a Europe that enhances its competitiveness while protecting the individual rights of its citizens. Our governments should further encourage the potential of new technologies while ensuring that they are used ethically and responsibly. 

To conclude he too had a nice metaphor ready during the event: “We must not miss the train of new technologies again”. A clear message where he particularly wanted to point to the avalanche of overregulation that Europe has thrown at tech and telecom companies so far. He stated: “We should be supporting these companies and giving them some time to adapt rather than discouraging them from innovating.” 

With the time pressure present during the Belgian presidency, one would expect responsible ministers to speak out in one voice towards representatives of other EU member states and affected sectors. Yet the contradictions during this EU presidency event became clear: While one Belgian co-president indicated to give the sector time, to pause and consolidate new regulations, the other co-president wants to work on new regulatory frameworks and incentives to ensure that new, ambitious goals are achieved in the aftermath of the Belgian EU presidency. But what does this dichotomy mean for the future of the Digital sector? 

Jan Feyaerts – Senior Consultant Belgian Team

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