DR. FRANK APPEL, CEO, Deutsche Post DHL Group

Prosperity, stability, open borders, a single market for at least 27 countries, and a single currency for more than 300 million people: What few would have dared to dream of 70 years ago has become a reality in Europe. The trouble is, we have become so used to this reality that it fails to generate much enthusiasm these days. In fact, Europe is fracturing as populist movements threaten to undermine the very foundation of the postwar continent’s economic and political progress.

Critically, Europe risks losing its clout at a time when it needs to be stronger than ever before. Long-standing alliances and established rules of engagement are increasingly vulnerable. To play an influential role in the world, Europe must speak with one voice on critical issues such as climate change, promoting open markets, or institutional reform at the World Trade Organization or the United Nations. The isolationist path that European populists are charting would be the fastest route to irrelevance.

2019: a defining year for Europe

2019 will be a defining year for Europe, with Brexit, European elections and a new EU Commission. In such a year, what we need more than anything is a clear and positive vision for Europe’s future – a vision that can help curb populism and contain the centrifugal forces it threatens to unleash. I believe that Europe’s core challenge today is that it fundamentally lacks orientation: Many people don’t know what the continent really stands for anymore, and what role it wants to play in the future.

Yet paradoxically, we have everything we need to fill this perceived void. We only have to look around us to see the key building blocks that can help us chart a promising path for the future of Europe – a path that is compelling enough to replace the prevailing sense of uncertainty with a sense of opportunity.

Digital transformation: opportunity abounds

I believe digital transformation plays a key role here as a powerful driver of our future prosperity. Digitalization leads to increased productivity across the economy, and thus to lower prices, higher real incomes and higher standards of living. It enables us to produce better products and services with fewer resources, and it reduces the need for physically demanding work.

Europe needs to be at the forefront of the digital transformation. This is, admittedly, ambitious. Europe still has deficits in key areas, such as high-speed broadband connectivity, and sometimes remains hampered by a “fear of failure” mentality that prevents us from experimenting with new ideas. But we also have a lot that we can build on: a history of pioneering innovations, a strong R&D track record, a highly qualified workforce and world-class engineering skills concentrated in many companies that lead in their respective fields.

Education: Europe’s “silver bullet”

If there is one “silver bullet” to advance a powerful digital economy and make Europe more future-proof, it’s high-quality education. Education enables continued innovation and helps people keep up with a changing world.

While Europe already has a high level of education, I believe we are not sufficiently prepared for the impact of the digital transformation and intensifying global competition. We have to mobilize far more resources to create state-of-the-art education systems, and focus more on reskilling and upskilling. The ultimate goal should be to provide more people in more stages of life with affordable, modular and tailored access to world-class learning opportunities. Of course, education is never a quick fix: Any real-life effect it can have is often decades away. But that delay between “sowing” and “harvesting” is no reason for not embarking on that road. Any year we wait is crucial time lost.

Open for business

A more forward-looking approach to digitalization and education would also go a long way to making Europe a more dynamic business location. But there is more that can be done here. For example, we would be well advised to invest significantly into modernizing and building the physical infrastructure that will keep us moving in the future.

We also need smarter regulation to facilitate entrepreneurship and the diffusion of new technologies. Other countries have created thriving special economic areas – why not create special experimental zones for technological innovation in Europe? For example, road stretches or dedicated parts of cities where autonomous driving or flying drones is encouraged. Likewise, we can do more to stimulate a thriving European venture capital scene, which would help to finance some of the top players of the future.

Europe’s agenda for a changing world

European institutions are not perfect. But the only realistic option is to work on our existing European architecture – not abandon it in favor of more national solutions. Today, we need a united, outward-looking Europe more than ever to make our voice heard. Europeans should appreciate the value of cooperation and the pooling of strengths. Our continent is the most interconnected region on the planet, with eight out of the 10 most globalized countries, according to the DHL Global Connectedness Index 2018. More than any other region, Europe is testament to the opportunities arising from cross-border integration. This should spur us on to staunchly defend the very essence of an open Europe and promote a more interconnected world.

Keeping our identity as an open, outward-looking Europe also means retaining our fundamental openness to people from other global regions. With their diverse talents and skills, migrants from all over the world can greatly enrich our cultures and economies, as they have done in the past. If we fully integrate them and tap their potential, we will also be better equipped to cope with demographic changes leading to an aging and shrinking workforce as well as talent gaps. As many migrants bring knowledge of outside markets, they can also help strengthen Europe’s global business ties.

Today’s young generation of Europeans can – and will – play a key role in our efforts to defend and strengthen our core European values while reaching out to the world. They embody the “European way of life” by working, studying and traveling freely across Europe in pursuit of the best opportunities. Their openness, their expectations and their demands can make a big difference and set free enormous potential for positive change. We have to do more to fully tap into this potential and to get young Europeans to make their voices heard on the political stage.

Europe today is one of the best places in the world to live, work and do business. But it needs a new push forward. Charting the right course will require the courage for change and readiness to take the right steps – toward a Europe that is digitally ahead, leads the way in education and offers the best possible entrepreneurial environment. The stakes are high. That is why companies such as Deutsche Post DHL Group have the responsibility to be part of the discussion and take a stand. Now is the time to preserve what we have achieved in the past, to maintain our openness and to build a confident, vigorous Europe in a changing world. —  Dr. Frank Appel

Published: April 2019

Images: ziggymaj/Getty Images; DHL