If it hadn’t been for Brexit, the UK would have been starting its six-month term in the rotating presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers this month. Instead, the schedule shifted and the Baltic nation of Estonia is in the driver’s seat, where it has a rare opportunity to set the tone for the EU’s broader agenda. In the case of Estonia, that primarily means preaching the benefits of digital governance to its neighbours.
Could the tiny Baltic state’s radical system of e-government and e-residency offer a model for the rest of Europe? The country does, after all, have a good track record in adopting next-generation technological advances. Even though only half the country had a telephone line in 1991, 97% of Estonian schools were online by 1997. Cabinet meetings went digital by 2000. By 2002, the government installed free Wi-Fi across nearly the entire nation. Today, citizens can access 99% of all public services online and use a secure digital signature for all official transactions, from voting to signing contracts. These innovations are estimated to boost annual GDP by 2%.
In addition to streamlined public services, 21,000 foreign e-residents, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, can now incorporate businesses in Estonia without ever coming to the country. The nation aims to have 10 million e-residents by 2025, including British entrepreneurs who would be otherwise cut off from the EU single market.
The first chance to see how convincingly Estonia can convince its neighbours to follow its lead will be at a digital summit in September, to be attended by every European head of state except Portugal’s Prime Minister. It’s a unique time for Estonia to assume the presidency, since the EU could well consider more digital solutions to address some of its most pressing collective challenges – especially the influx of migrants since 2015 and concurrent security concerns related to illegal overstays, cross-border terrorism, and organized crime.
To be fair, the EU has already begun moving in this direction. The Commission recently expanded the mandate of eu-LISA, an agency that oversees border management and internal security systems like the Visa Information System, the Schengen Information System, a border and police database, and Eurodac, the asylum fingerprint database. All three systems are viewed as central to the bloc’s efforts to leverage digital tools and databases to strengthen control over security. As eu-LISA grows in prominence, it is gathering additional systems under its umbrella, including the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) which will screen visa-free travellers. There is additional legislation underway to make all the European-level security databases managed by eu-LISA more interoperable. Given its mandate over digital security systems, it’s no coincidence the agency is based in Tallinn.
Private companies have also been stepping in with digital solutions for Europe’s security challenges. The French Imprimerie Nationale Groupe recently acquired Thales’ biometric and ID management business, boosting its position in the biometric and security technology sector; indeed, biometric technologies have helped reinvent the nearly 400-year-old company. Swiss firm Sita has also been experimenting with biometrics for customs and border control, saying their technology will screen passengers more strictly while streamlining the check-in process. Estonia was among the first European governments to proactively seek out such offerings: Tallinn started working with Netherlands-based security firm Gemalto to issue e-ID cards for all of its citizens back in 2002.
Yet even as the EU has taken steps towards the right course and European companies like the Imprimerie Nationale and Sita push further, the bloc has yet to exploit the full potential of technology when it comes to efforts to get a grip on Europe’s border and security crisis. The European Commissionintroduced the “Smart Borders” policy in 2011 and announced proposals to use new technologies to strengthen the security of external borders in April 2016. Some of these proposals include an EU entry-exit system that would increase automation at border controls and improve detection of document fraud. Promising steps, but the EU’s smart borders initiative is only proceeding at a plodding pace – which is where Tallinn might act as a catalyst to hasten change.
Of course, many of Estonia’s propositions – especially more unusual ones like “e-residency” – would prove tough to implement elsewhere in Europe. The obstacles include cost, privacy, and the gap in digital advancement between the Baltic state and other countries. Not only that, but it’s far easier to implement sweeping changes in governance in a countries that spans less than 50,000 square kilometres and has a population of 1.3 million than it would be in, say, Italy or Germany.
But while Estonia’s gospel of paperless government might not catch on in the near term, the idea that technological solutions can help safeguard borders goes without question. Other European countries are still squabbling about which government has let more migrants slip in and are trying to erect stronger physical borders. Earlier this month, Austria announced it was prepared to use military means to prevent migrants from entering from Italy, which is dealing with an “unprecedented” number of arrivals from Northern Africa. At a time like this, new ideas about how to leverage more modern solutions to shared challenges (like implementing “smart borders”) is exactly what Europe needs.
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