On 9 May 1950 Robert Schuman proposed that France and Germany should combine their coal and steel production. Today, 70 years later, we are facing the greatest economic and human upheaval that Europe has had to face since then. Bart Steukers (Agoria), wonders what today's coal and steel would be. For him, that would be ... data.


On 9 May 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman gave a speech that would change Europe forever. In his "Schuman Declaration" he called for the pooling of coal and steel production in France and Germany – a proposal which was open to other countries. War would never again put Europe to fire and sword.

Today, 70 years later, we are facing the greatest economic and human upheaval that Europe has had to face since then. In just a few months, 150 000 people have died from the coronavirus in Europe. That would be like wiping Mons and Verviers off the map. Nearly 800 000 people have been infected, which is the total population of the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg combined. Restoring the European economy will cost clearly far more than the Marshall Plan of the time, even under the current conditions.

Each country is charting its own exit strategy from the crisis

The European Union has achieved great feats over the last few decades. In the coming weeks, it may be forced to break its piggy bank. I am not sure that this will achieve the desired result, however. Opening or closing internal borders makes sense only if we maintain a uniform approach, independent of external events. European countries have always criticized Trump for his "America first" policy, but today they have no qualms about stepping on each other to obtain protective equipment while refusing to take in sick patients from other countries when they have the means to do so. Each country is charting its own exit strategy from the crisis, often without sufficient consultation with the other countries around it.

Opening or closing internal borders makes sense only if we maintain a uniform approach, independent of external events.

Thus, on Monday, Wallonia will finally start to trace the contacts of patients -- a task entrusted to staff in call centres. The cost of this operation is likely to exceed €100 million, without the development of a digital platform: A sum of €100 million euros (!), which a small region like Wallonia will have to bear alone.   This represents billions of euros if all the countries and regions of Europe are included, and it is only for tracing contacts. How would Schuman, whom our leaders and governments seem to revere so much today, feel about this situation? He would be shocked and amazed, in my opinion.

A call from a call centre will always come too late

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind: data are the steel and coal of the new normal. The money being invested in call centres at this time would have enabled us to develop hundreds of applications that would work much faster and in a more targeted manner. A call from a call centre will always come too late. An application can warn us if we have been in close proximity to someone infected with the virus. Infected people could thus be detected and isolated more rapidly.

The money being invested in call centres at this time would have enabled us to develop hundreds of applications that would work much faster and in a more targeted manner.

The focus should be on tracing the virus, not people. I am calling for a uniform approach in Europe, with applications that are compatible with those in other countries. This is the only way to track the epidemic and contain it. Almost nine out of ten Belgians already have a smartphone. Our country can lead the way by ensuring strict respect for privacy and data protection. We nonetheless continue to think as if we were still living in Schuman's time. Except that he was well ahead of his time.

The Commission could play a far more important role

"Out of my depth", I can already hear people say. It is no longer a time for "legislatively correct" speeches. We could of course juggle with everyone's skills, but  citizens nowadays are tired of discussions that only serve to pass the buck. Instead, they want to see who can help them when they need it most. The Commission provides support through recommendations and "digital toolboxes". As European countries struggle to develop modern tracing solutions that balance privacy protection, unconditional cooperation and public support, however, the Commission could play a far more important role -- despite the fact that this does not fall within its remit "from a technical point of view."

These are uncertain times, but progress should not be sacrificed for all that

We already have the necessary technology. Industry is unanimous in calling for a decentralized solution that would respect privacy and data protection. Yet countries remain divided.

Some countries do not know how to go about it or are procrastinating (Belgium), others are muddling through (the Netherlands), others yet are on the right track (Austria), or have already started screening on a large scale (Switzerland). Still others cannot decide between a centralized or decentralized system (Germany) or whether to stick to a centralized system (France and the UK), but are in danger of running into privacy issues or being overtaken by initiatives from corporate giants such as Google and Apple. All this only to complain about the strategic choices of other countries afterwards?

The uncertainty as to what features an application will or will not have only fuels fears of excessive invasion of our privacy.

In the absence of a clear policy decision at present, this uncertainty as to what features an application will or will not have only fuels fears of excessive invasion of our privacy. These are uncertain times, but progress should not be sacrificed for all that. All the more so since it is becoming increasingly clear that technology is perfectly capable of providing the necessary guarantees for our privacy.

Why not adopt a single application for tracing and monitoring social distancing for all EU countries?

 Well then, why not take the plunge and adopt a single application for tracing and monitoring social distancing for all EU countries? An application that would be accompanied by an information campaign (supported by all our politicians) to boost its success and therefore its effectiveness. In Austria, 15% of the population voluntarily will within a few weeks participate in such an initiative, supported by the Red Cross. Every federal state, every citizen of that state, can choose to take part. The application is customized by state and by region.

We have been calling, texting and surfing abroad for three years at domestic rates. Are we going to make the introduction of contact-tracing roaming a single European project?

And if the EU remains incompetent in this area, the countries can simply decide to join forces to that end. If you were to ask passers-by on the street to name a concrete achievement of the European Union, chances are they would mention the abolition of roaming charges. We have been calling, texting and surfing abroad for three years at domestic rates. Are we going to make the introduction of contact-tracing roaming a single European project? Will the Benelux countries still play a leading role here, as they did when the ECSC was set up? That would certainly not have displeased Schuman.

Bart Steukers
Context Director at Agoria