The irony was too obvious to miss: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with senior management from Vodafone, ruminating over Europe’s digital future in a building which once held enormous amounts of gas.
But while there was plenty of hot air at the Digitising Europe conference at the Gasometer Schöneberg – just like any conference – there were also signs that the Chancellor is increasingly on message when it comes to Germany’s digital economy; certainly compared with her previous speech to the tech masses.
Among the topics she touched on in her speech, held in a sealed-off venue amid high security, was the need for Europe to compete on a global level as a whole rather than as a collection of individual countries, how a focus on developing the digital economy can help tackle the continent’s horrific youth unemployment problem, making it easier to set up and grow a startup, and even the need to compromise when it comes to data privacy on the Internet.
Since her appearance at the Internet & Startups in Deutschland event in March last year, Merkel has started to add some meat to the bones of her digital policies. Some of the ground she covered* at Thursday’s conference, which was hosted by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, included:
“This is the right moment for us to really try to fill that gap and to grow into this Internet of Things market. This is not only an opportunity, it is a need, a necessity, because if we are unable to do this now, we Europeans as a whole will fall behind in international competition.”
Supporting Berlin startups
“Berlin stands for change. Only a dew days ago, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We see what has grown up in the meantime since the Wall fell. We have seen the number of young startups, the creative scene of Berlin that has developed immensely. Berlin no longer has that much of an industrial base. But it does have a very promising startup scene, one that needs to be supported. So one of the questions [for] the federal government is how can we create even better framework conditions for young people to set up startups.”
“The digital economy is certainly a great engine for growth and jobs in Europe which is why people need to be able to set up startups fairly simply. It would the best thing if we level the playing field for startups throughout the whole European Union.”
Germany’s Venture Capital culture
“I must say that the culture for venture capital, for investing in small companies, is not as highly developed in our country as it should be. So right now we are trying to create tax breaks, at a European level too. I think we need to address the possibilities of giving tax breaks without them being qualified immediately as state aid.”
Competing on a global stage as a continent
“We need the advantages of the European single market. … You will not be able to go it alone if [you] wish to hold [your] own in global competition.”
Handling personal data
“I think we are highly sensitive here in Europe [about handling personal data] and this sensitivity needs to be brought into the process so that we can develop new and interesting products that perhaps others are not able to produce. But in order to be successful globally, we have to do something, we cannot simply put the brakes on; that will not bring Europe forward. We have to look at the chances and the opportunities and not only at the risks, because then [we allow] others in the world to use those opportunities and that would be a huge mistake.”
Promoting a positive attitude to the digital economy
“Far more jobs will be created in this particular industry [i.e. technology] than will fall away due to the introduction of digitisation in the real [i.e. traditional] economy.”
Some real progress, then, in terms of the German government having a clear direction it wants to take with the digital economy. And this time around, the Chancellor wasn’t doing a meet-and-greet with the startup community; the audience was noticeably less startup-y this time around (as per the lack of familiar faces and the always-accurate suit test).
Over the course of her nine years in the top job, Merkel has proven time and again to be a safe pair of hands; someone able to put with enormous amounts of hostility and problems and (usually) emerge on the other side with some kind of solution. The concern with regards to startups was that she perhaps lacks a spark of inspiration, but transforming the German – and European – economies along digital lines is a process that goes far beyond the lines of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Berlin, Germany or across Europe.
The successor to Neelie Kroes as European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Günther Oettinger, will also bring a German flavour to digitisation across the EU, and there is no doubt that these are critical times for the economy of the continent as a whole.
*NB: All quotes attributed to Chancellor Merkel in this article come from the real-time English-language translation provided by the conference hosts.
Photo: Maren Lesche