Ladies and gentlemen
The Baltic Sea is home to one of the most economically dynamic regions in Europe and the world.
Something to be proud of; a symbol of international socio-economic success.
But the picture is slightly more complicated.
I would suggest that multi-state regions like the Baltic Sea face several challenges that are holding it back from achieving its true potential.
Deepening regional integration has been a longstanding issue for these eight countries sharing a coastline of some 8,000 kilometres.
Perhaps that is not so unusual. After all, countries often differ in their economic priorities and political concerns. And with 80 million inhabitants - nearly 16% of the EU population – this region is not small.
Despite the economic success, it suffers from relatively low internal competitive pressure. Taken on their own, some of its national country markets are just too small. They need each other.
That is another reason to intensify Baltic integration, for more balanced collective prosperity. And so we arrive at the EU's first - and most successful - macro-regional strategy – and the reason we have gathered in Tallinn today.
A good example of its success can be seen with the ECOPRODIGI project. This aims to make the Baltic Sea region a model for clean shipping.
It has helped to increase the eco-efficiency of the region's maritime industry by helping it turn more digital: to enhance ship performance, loading and shipyard processes, for example.
As we know, the maritime industry has major economic importance for this region. Using digital technology to improve maritime performance will benefit all its countries.
This is also the thinking behind the wider Digital Single Market, which embraces all economic sectors – especially when it comes to high-speed connectivity. I will return to this a little later.
The Baltic region countries themselves have a big part to play. Better cooperation on digitalisation and research can improve competition in each one, and in the region as a whole.
In terms of their digital readiness, the Baltic group of eight are relatively advanced. The digitalisation levels of their economies and societies are mostly above the EU average. In some cases, way above.
So, digitally speaking, the region is well placed to embrace technological progress and thrive on it. However, there are substantial differences between countries that are holding back regional progress.
Denmark, Finland and Sweden occupy the top three spots in the European Commission's 2018 Digital Economy and Society Index.
But some countries in this region fall below the EU average, although their problem areas are more specific.
As a bloc of countries, the EU is no stranger to the digital divide. National and regional differences are not unique.
But we cannot allow them to expand any more if we are to build a fully functioning Digital Single Market across Europe. They should be minimised and ironed out.
Better regional integration with digital policies allows innovative companies based in one country to grow and prosper from a larger and more developed home market.
As the Digital Single Market becomes a reality across all EU countries, they will eventually benefit from a more integrated market on a regional and European scale.
The same is true for this region too.
After all, that is the point of the EU's Baltic Sea strategy:
- to accelerate the region's integration and boost its economy;
- to promote entrepreneurship, innovation, trade and digitally-driven growth;
- and to help this rich region make more of itself, and prosper.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One of the Digital Single Market's main aims is to use digital technology to link people and businesses; countries, regions and communities, wherever they are in Europe.
Everyone, everywhere, should have access to high-speed internet, including 5G. We have set targets for achieving this, which will help to narrow digital divides within and between regions.
This region is already a connectivity pioneer in many respects. Take Finland's submarine cable C-Lion1, linking Helsinki under the Baltic Sea to Rostock in Germany.
Not does it improve real-time connectivity across the region, it helps to position Finland as a datacentre location. Studies are now underway for an extension to link Finland and Asia via the Arctic.
The EU supports high-speed broadband networks in its current funding programme: €6 billion for broadband roll-out and other digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, from the European Structural and Investment Funds.
But of course we have to look ahead as well. Connectivity will be at the heart of the Commission's proposals for the EU's next long-term budget.
For the first time, the EU should have dedicated funding programmes for digital in the next financial framework for 2021 to 2027: €9.19 billion in the Digital Europe Programme supporting high-performance computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, advanced digital skills as well as digitalisation of industry and public services.
There will also be €3 billion available in the Connecting Europe Facility to support the deployment of very high capacity digital networks and 5G systems.
We need EU governments themselves, as well as industry and business, to match this level of commitment as much as they can.
Adequate funding is vital for our digital future, for regions as much as countries.
That is how all of Europe can benefit from the opportunities of the Digital Single Market.
Let us also not forget that Europe's regions - their towns, cities and villages – have a major part to play in building the Digital Single Market. This is where things are really put into practice, at grassroots level.
If they do not work on a smaller regional scale, how can they work in a uniform and coherent way across the vast territory of the European Union?
In the digital world, that is vital - and especially in a single market.
Europe's regions – including all those in the Baltic Sea region - are where the work to build a Digital Single Market begins in earnest.
They are the starting point for Europe's ultimate digital success.