Early 2019 marked a series of important developments in harmonization of digital markets for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries.
The 4th meeting of the Harmonization of Digital Markets (HDM) panel within the EaP Economic development and market opportunities platform (February 7, 2019 in Brussels) and the 3rd EaP Ministerial Meeting on Digital Economy (February 28, 2019 in Bucharest) were another reference point in bringing the region’s countries closer to the EU digital space.
The panel participants mainly focused on cyber resilience, the creation of the common roaming space, and the development of broadband infrastructure in the EaP region.
The Ministerial meeting approved the Declaration on the intentions of EU member-states and institutions to deepen cooperation for the fastest and most effective accomplishment of the major goals for digital market harmonization.
In the context of these new opportunities, the launch of EU4Digital: Supporting Digital Economy and Society in the Eastern Partnership, a new massive project, was announced. It is funded under the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI) framework. The main efforts of this initiative will be in line with the key sectors in the harmonization of EaP’s digital markets with those of EU member-states:
– telecom rules and digital infrastructure;
– e-Trust and cyber security;
– startup and ICT innovation ecosystems;
– Digital Skills;
In fact, the main support will go to six thematic networks of EU4Digital initiatives framed along the sectors listed above. This support will include the establishment of expert groups for every network. Moreover, the project is expected to increase the visibility and transparency of thematic networks and the HDM panel overall.
In the past 18 months, the priority of digital development of the economy and society increased significantly in all EaP countries. Accomplishments under the 20 Deliverables For 2020 common working document proves this. At the same time, a preliminary assessment of the digital market harmonization in the region points to little likelihood of accomplishing all goals mentioned in the document by 2020.
Telecom Rules and digital infrastructure
The main positive result of multilateral cooperation in this sphere is the confirmation by EaP ministers that they are ready to sign the regional agreement on decreasing international roaming rates between EaP countries by 2020 and approve a joint roadmap that should lead to the signing of this regional agreement. Importantly, EaP countries and EU member-states have agreed to examine the possibility of establishing common space for international roaming, including economically sustainable cutting of roaming rates between EaP countries and the EU. The parties have agreed to start discussions and conduct a respective study that will be launched in 2019 and completed by the end of 2020.
The approval of the Declaration that records all this is an important signal for further joint work of EaP countries and EU member-states to set up common international roaming space for both regions. For now, however, none of the countries has passed a strategic document to regulate harmonization of frequencies between partner-states.
Almost all countries in the region have started developing strategies for improving access to broadband Internet although there has been little visible action on harmonization.
For now, this sector of digital market harmonization has the best results compared to other sectors of cooperation for the six EaP countries.
e-Trust and cyber security
The main positive prerequisite for the development of this sector of HDM in EaP countries is the launch of EU4Digital: improving cyber resilience in Eastern Partnership countries (under ENI). Its goal is to improve cyber resilience and the respective systems of criminal judiciary in EaP countries. It will focus on designing technical mechanisms and cooperation mechanisms that improve cyber security and readiness for cyber attacks. These include reinforcement of institutional management and legal framework, development of critically important IT infrastructure, and improvement of cyber crime incident management potential.
The region has delivered some accomplishments in this sector of HDM in the past two years:
– progress in implementing the European eIDAS Regulation;
– adoption of a number of national strategies on cyber security (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine);
– establishment of cyber security departments in government authorities;
– first steps to implement the EU Directive on Security of Network and Information Systems (Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine lead the way).
The creation of permanently operational transborder systems for digital signature and regional systems of transborder digital services for the business between partner states and the EU by 2020 is now unlikely because of many normative and technical barriers.
None of the EaP countries has a unified government body in charge of paperless trade and e-logistics. As a result, decision making in these areas is not comprehensive.
Transition to digital technologies in exports procedures is the weakest element of e-trade in EaP countries. The region has reached quite a high level in implementing e-identification solutions in logistics.
Recent developments in the EaP region signal the countries’ intention to further develop transborder e-trade systems. At the same time, most relevant measures have been declarative, not always aiming to harmonize e-trade systems between partner states.
The signatories of the Association Agreement with the EU have made the most visible steps towards harmonizing regulations on e-commerce, e-customs procedures and e-logistics with the EU’s respective laws and regulations.
For now, no one strategic document exists that could boost the establishment of sustainable transborder e-trade systems between EaP countries. This makes the creation of digital transport corridors, both internal and with EU member-states, less likely.
Startup and ICT innovation ecosystems
The available legislation on intellectual property, digital signature and e-documents is the most positive factor for the establishment of structured ecosystems for ICT research, innovation and startups. Over the past two years, virtually all EaP countries adopted programmatic documents on innovative development on the nationwide scale. At the same time, most countries face a number of negative factors:
– fragmented responsibility for policy design between different government agencies;
– a lack of specific policy instruments (supported with budget resources) that could have a positive effect on national ICT innovation systems;
– a lack of demand for ICT innovations in domestic markets coupled with restricted use of ICT and the resulting low income of the market players.
Simultaneously, a number of factors exist which hamper the establishment of links between ecosystems of partner states and similar ecosystems in the EU:
– a lack of systemic and strategic approach to the construction of innovation ecosystems;
– the existing national innovation systems in EaP countries are fragmented and incomplete.
The work to accomplish the goals of 20 Deliverables For 2020 in this sector requires the most comprehensive and long-term approach.
For now, this sector of HDM shows the lowest factual results compared to other sectors in the context of harmonization within the region and with the EU.
Actions within the EU4Digital: eSkills Network are the most telling accomplishments in this sector. Under its umbrella, a series of seminars was conducted on the development of digital skills in the EaP region, and the first National Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs was established in Armenia in 2017. Georgia, too, has done some preparations in this sector. But the process has stalled so far at the stage of the memorandum of understanding designed for the coalition. Belarus plans to launch the coalition in 2019.
According to the EU4Digital: eSkills Network seminar participants, the first-priority area of digital skills development in the EaP region is the improvement of digital skills in education, including skills for teachers, the creation of training instruments and platforms, and early teaching of the youth and students. These are followed by digital skills for the workforce not represented in ICT, digital skills for ICT professionals, and digital skills for the citizens.
The lack of national strategies and coalitions in most countries prevents partner states from controlling the digital skills situation and taking balanced decisions on the ground.
The introduction of the e-Competence Framework (e-CF) as an additional factor in the development of digital skills is poorly articulated in EaP states. As a result, EaP countries have few prerequisites for fast adoption of the standard that is understandable across Europe. The lack of a harmonized e-CF makes it impossible to evaluate workforce on the ground. The implementation of e-CF will help EaP countries develop a system of standards under the European e-Competence Framework umbrella. This will help determine the skills and competences necessary for successful performance in IT-related work (listed in the Single Digital Market Strategy for Europe, among others).
In order to speed up the development of digital skills in the EaP region, it is necessary to design ways to implement e-CF and to establish national coalitions for digital skill development in the first place. Launching the drafting of national strategies for digital skills in partner states is another priority.
The plan is to harmonize e-health legislation between EaP partner states and the EU by 2021. Pilot transborder e-health services will be launched between EaP partner states and the EU.
For now, however, only the commitment of partner states to adopt EU standards for e-health (acquis EC) and a regional study on e-health (regional recommendations and national roadmaps have been developed to coordinate e-health systems between partner states in line with the EU norms) are available.
None of the partner states has a clearly formulated and officially approved e-health strategy that complies with the EU e-health strategy.
The key barrier on the path towards transborder e-health services is the multiplicity and divergence of health record and database systems in all countries. They were all created a long time ago and use outdated software. These systems barely interact with each other. A lack of legal clarity and operational (technical) capacity for medical data exchange between states is one of the reasons.
Studies of innovations in e-health, including the practice of innovation procurement, are hardly done or conducted on a small scale. This is partly because of the divergence of data and sources.
Current cooperation with the EU is insignificant and irregular.
A mechanism for coordination within the EaP region should be set up, according to recommendations of the e-health systems study in the region. It is assumed that the regional EU4Digital: e-Health network will have relevant functions as a coordination and support body.
In order to improve the accountability of the harmonization of digital markets processes in the Eastern Partnership, a number of measures should be taken to reduce the following general constraints for all HDM directions:
1) lack of transparency and consistency in publishing the results of EU4Digital networks and the HDM Panel;
2) the imperfections and diversity of the Eastern Partnership countries’ statistics systems, which does not allow to fully assess and compare the degree of development of the digital economy and society in partner states, as well as in the region as a whole.
It is assumed that the first factor will be partially decreased by the EU4Digital project, which, in particular, will increase the visibility and transparency of the thematic networks and the HDM Panel as a whole by developing a website and creating permanent thematic expert working groups within the HDM directions (EU4Digital networks).
The second factor is more complex and important for timely identification of problems and needs in the field of HDM and digital economies of the partner countries. Its importance is confirmed by the results of a Study on monitoring the Digital Economy and Society in the Eastern European Partner Countries (HiQSTEP project). The problems of the EaP statistical systems are mostly caused by the lack of a clear and unified methodology for data collection, insufficient funding, and a shortage of qualified personnel. These problems will partially be solved at the expense of the Regional Programme on Statistics with Eurostat in the Eastern Partnership.
Eliminating the above mentioned factors will make a significant contribution to further assessment of digital development of the Eastern Partnership region as a whole and its each country; it will help identify digital economy areas that require investment most; it will allow making comparative analysis not only between Eastern Partnership countries, but also between countries of the EaP region and the EU.
Improving the transparency and visibility consistency of the EU4Digital and HDM Panel will increase the accountability and improve public understanding of the region’s HDM sphere, which in its turn will contribute to early identification of problems in digital economy and society as well as create the prerequisites for successful advocacy on solving identified problems.