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Blockchain can have multiple applications in the social economy, but must not create a new 'digital economy elite', says #EESC

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Originally associated with cryptocurrencies, blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) are in fact very versatile and can be usefully applied to the social economy. However, it is important to regulate them properly and gear them to benefits for all, allowing everyone to participate, says the EESC in a report tabled at its July plenary.

While large-scale use of these technologies is linked to the spread of cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, they also have social, cultural, political and economic potential, stresses the EESC.

"We can draw parallels with the invention of the printing press", says rapporteurGiuseppe Guerini. "As we know, the first book to be printed was a bible. Now, imagine if people had equated the printing press with a means capable of printing only bibles - that would have been inaccurate, because printing technology revolutionised life in Europe".

The EESC has drawn up a long list of possible applications for blockchain and DLT that can be of great interest to social economy enterprises, including:

  • Tracing donations and fundraising. Donors would be able to follow the flow and destination of money donated to NGOs. NGOs on the other hand could report in detail on each expenditure stream, ensuring that money invested is actually used for its intended purpose;
  • improving the governance of social economy organizations, making consultation of members and voting more secure and traceable, facilitating participation even where members are spread out geographically or too numerous to hold traditional general meetings;
  • authenticating activities carried out at a distance by associations and cooperatives working in education and training or entertainment, or staging artistic and intellectual productions;
  • certificating skills, ensuring the security of qualifications and diplomas in digital format;
  • making intellectual property rights and copyright clearer and more certain, establishing "smart contracts" for the transfer of content;
  • offering secure telemedicine and e-care systems. A huge number of social economy organisations are involved in health care and social assistance located in close proximity to the people needing them, including in decentralized areas where this application could have a considerable impact on people's quality of life, and;
  • making agricultural products fully traceable and identifiable, preventing fraud and counterfeiting. Many agricultural cooperatives regard this application with great interest.

Nevertheless, the huge potential of the new digital technologies, coupled with the considerable investment required, also exposes blockchain technology to the risk of concentration - of data and technological networks being subject to speculation and hoarding in the hands of the few players or countries able to make large investments, warns the EESC.

"We don't want to see a digital divide that creates more inequality and injustice. We don't want to see a new elite emerging, of people who are familiar with the new technologies and end up excluding others from the economy and the market,"says the rapporteur.

It is important that there be public measures to support the development of these technologies in a participatory and accessible way. And the involvement of civil society is imperative to make sure that the democratic potential is not lost, stresses the EESC.

EU regulation makes sense because this technology uses chains that can be created irrespective of national borders. So the EU needs to be involved in this sector and coordinate efforts, argues the EESC. The large investments required call for coordinated, structured European action.

Background

Blockchain technology is an IT protocol dating back to the 1990s, whose development is linked to cryptocurrencies. It is both a code and a public register in which all transactions between participants in a network are recorded one after the other, with a high degree of transparency and in a way that cannot be altered. Each participant is a link in the chain, helping to validate and store the data that is being exchanged. This should make the data processing secure and help build mutual trust between blockchain participants. Blockchain is therefore an attractive tool for redefining security in digital transactions.

In 2018, the European Commission proposed to develop a European Blockchain Partnership, triggering the creation of the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum, which has already published a number of thematic reports. The EESC is currently working on a report on Blockchain and the single market, due to be finalised in October 2019. Read the EESC's opinion entitled Blockchain and distributed ledger technology as an ideal infrastructure for the social economy.

EU

‘Right to disconnect’ should be an EU-wide fundamental right, MEPs say 

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Always on’ culture poses serious risks, MEPs say ©Deagreez/Adobe Stock  

The European Parliament calls for an EU law that grants workers the right to digitally disconnect from work without facing negative repercussions. In their legislative initiative that passed with 472 votes in favour, 126 against and 83 abstentions, MEPs call on the Commission to propose a law that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours. It should also establish minimum requirements for remote working and clarify working conditions, hours and rest periods.

The increase in digital resources being used for work purposes has resulted in an ‘always on’ culture, which has a negative impact on the work-life balance of employees, MEPs say. Although working from home has been instrumental in helping safeguard employment and business during the COVID-19 crisis, the combination of long working hours and higher demands also leads to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.

MEPs consider the right to disconnect a fundamental right that allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks – such as phone calls, emails and other digital communication – outside working hours. This includes holidays and other forms of leave. Member states are encouraged to take all necessary measures to allow workers to exercise this right, including via collective agreements between social partners. They should ensure that workers will not be subjected to discrimination, criticism, dismissal, or other adverse actions by employers.

“We cannot abandon millions of European workers who are exhausted by the pressure to be always 'on' and overly long working hours. Now is the moment to stand by their side and give them what they deserve: the right to disconnect. This is vital for our mental and physical health. It is time to update worker’s rights so that they correspond to the new realities of the digital age,” rapporteur Alex Agius Saliba (S&D, MT) said after the vote.

Background

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has increased by almost 30%. This figure is expected to remain high or even increase. Research by Eurofound shows that people who work regularly from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week, compared to those working on their employer’s premises. Almost 30% of those working from home report working in their free time every day or several times a week, compared to less than 5% of office workers.

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Brexit

Scottish government comment on efforts to stay in Erasmus

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Minsters have welcomed the support of around 150 MEPs who have asked the European Commission to explore how Scotland could continue to take part in the popular Erasmus exchange programme. The move comes a week after Further and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead held productive talks with Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel to explore the idea. Until last year, over 2,000 Scottish students, staff and learners took part in the scheme annually, with Scotland attracting proportionally more Erasmus participants from across Europe - and sending more in the other direction - than any other country in the UK.

Lochhead said: “Losing Erasmus is huge blow for the thousands of Scottish students, community groups and adult learners - from all demographic backgrounds - who can no longer live, study or work in Europe.“It also closes the door for people to come to Scotland on Erasmus to experience our country and culture and it is heartening to see that loss of opportunity recognised by the 145 MEPs from across Europe who want Scotland’s place in Erasmus to continue. I am grateful to Terry Reintke and other MEPs for their efforts and thank them for extending the hand of friendship and solidarity to Scotland’s young people. I sincerely hope we can succeed.

“I have already had a virtual meeting with Commissioner Gabriel. We agreed that withdrawing from Erasmus is highly regrettable and we will continue to explore with the EU how to maximize Scotland’s continued engagement with the programme. I have also spoken with my Welsh Government counterpart and agreed to keep in close contact.”

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EU

Leaders agree on new ‘dark red’ zones for high-risk COVID areas

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At a special meeting of European heads of government, to discuss the rise of infection rates across Europe and the emergence of new, more contagious variants, leaders agreed that the situation warranted the utmost caution and agreed on a new category of ‘dark red zone’ for high-risk areas.

The new category would indicate that the virus was circulating at a very high level. People traveling from dark red areas could be required to do a test before departure, as well as to undergo quarantine after arrival. Non-essential travel in or out of these areas would be strongly discouraged.

The EU has underlined that it is anxious to keep the single market functioning especially concerning the movement of essential workers and goods, von der Leyen described this as of the “utmost importance”. 

The approval of vaccinations and the start of roll-out is encouraging but it is understood that further vigilance is needed. Some states which are more dependent on tourism called for the use of vaccination certificates as a way to open up travel. The leaders debated the use a common approach and agreed that the vaccination document should be seen as a medical document, rather than a travel document - at this stage. Von der Leyen said: “We will discuss the suitability of a common approach to certification.”

Member states agreed to a Council recommendation setting a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results across the EU. The mutual recognition of test results for SARS-CoV2 infection carried by certified health bodies should help facilitate cross-border movement and cross-border contact tracing.

The common list of appropriate COVID-19 rapid antigen tests should be flexible enough for addition, or removal, of those tests whose efficacy is impacted by COVID-19 mutations.

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