Like a rally driver on the lookout for the next corner, humanity is fiercely focused on the immediate present. The data of infected, dead and vaccinated are consumed almost in real time. Their endless dance exerts an attraction similar to that of the stock market lurch for the investor or the audiences for the television producer. But as the world stumbles along the slippery roads of the pandemic, the landscape beyond the window is changing. And when the engine stops, the air might smell different out there.
Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, recently appointed head of the working group that should accelerate the production of vaccines in the EU, accumulates more power than anyone in Ursula von der Leyen’s team. But along with the executive capacity to deal minute by minute with the responses to the health crisis, he has a very French drive towards reflection and re-foundation, and his environment attributes a keen sense of anticipation, perhaps accentuated by his past facet of science fiction writer.
“We can suffer new pandemics, and we have to learn to live with them. The after world It will be diametrically different from today, and it will be done willingly or by force. It will happen with or without us ”, he tells EL PAÍS. Breton is convinced that the crisis has accelerated trends that already existed, and that Europe – like most – was not prepared for the pandemic. “This crisis has been the trigger for awareness of the vulnerability of our economic systems. Relaunching an ambitious industrial strategy will be crucial to reducing our exposure to these risks, recovering sovereignty in our strategic activities, but also decarbonizing energy and inventing much more resistant models ”.
The new spirit in which Europe approaches free trade is nuanced. Globalization, yes, but in the jungle it is worth keeping a bullet in the chamber. The markets have proven not to be efficient enough to provide immediate solutions. And Europe does not want to sit in China’s waiting room again when the sirens sound again. “Europe can no longer afford to depend on others for essential materials and technologies for our industry and our citizens,” says Breton.
The commissioner, former president of France Telecom, believes that the EU will have to undertake new investments in order not to be left behind in the technological battle. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, the risks of social exclusion and the challenge of strategic dependency will revolve around connectivity. A quarter of the European population does not have access to very high speed broadband. This is unacceptable. To offer all our fellow citizens very high-speed Internet access, we will have to position ourselves in the global space race and equip ourselves with a constellation of low-orbiting satellites, as well as fiber and 5G networks ”.
They say data is the new oil. And Breton shares it. “The world to come will obviously revolve around data and our ability to collect, manage and analyze this data across industries. The data war has already started. It will be important for us to be at the forefront: equip ourselves with processing capacity, autonomous computing power and a European cloud ”.
Brussels has been repeating for months that the reconstruction after the pandemic will be done on new green and digital bases. And if expectations are met, that will turn the job market upside down. “We have just experienced an unprecedented shift towards telecommuting. Our way of working will change radically: the decline of the physical office arrives, a new relationship with time, with the profession, new specialized skills. By 2025, in just five years, 50% of all employees will need to retrain ”, he predicts.
Assuming the role of oracle is not easy when the expiration date of the pandemic is unknown. But unlike the caution with which many of his colleagues in the hallway express themselves, Breton moves comfortably in the thankless art of prediction, so often dismantled later by reality. In the case of tourism, probably the worst hit sector, it predicts a rediscovery of the closest spaces. “We are already seeing it: the world tourism space is shrinking, distances are shortening, the local tourist offer, for its part, is increasing.”
Nor is he shy about warning the tech giants of the dangers of the open bar. “The recent events on Capitol Hill are a tremendous indicator of the importance that social media has assumed in our societies. Let’s be aware: the future of our public space cannot be left in the hands of digital companies without control or democratic legitimacy. Let us realize that it is a question of survival for our democracies in the 21st century ”.
With no European tech champions in contention to compete with the US and Chinese giants, Breton warns of the risks of being relegated. “What is at stake is not only scientific or economic, now it is accompanied by a geopolitical challenge. Faced with the technological war in the making and the latent risk of technological dependence, Europe must continue to be the owner of its destiny and develop an economy capable of preserving its knowledge and technologies ”.