Electronic signatures now have legal force across the European Union, but at the highest levels of government too many procedures are still performed on paper, outgoing European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said Tuesday.
At a ceremony to celebrate the e-Identification and Trust services (eIDAS) regulation, which went into effect last month, Kroes chose to digitally sign a message to Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker, calling on him to make every transaction with the Commission and other EU institutions electronically possible.
The new regulation enables digital transactions of many kinds, including cross-border bidding on government contracts, but while it will apply to member states, it does not have direct application to the EU institutions.
Many European Commission processes and procedures are still done on paper, and that should end, said Kroes, whose last term as commissioner ends Nov. 1.
"Whether you're bidding for an EU procurement contract or submitting your invoice for payment, it should be possible to do it completely online, without having to resort to piles of paperwork -- or indeed any -- from the beginning to the end of the process," Kroes said. "Let's make the most of what our new rules make possible. Let's lead by example with EU institutions that are 100 percent digital."
Enabling businesses to digitally place cross-border public procurement bids is one of the main aims of the regulation.
If Juncker and other officials heed Kroes' call, it could mean big business for forward-thinking companies that choose to bid across borders this way, and better deals for governments that accept digitally signed bids.
For example, a Polish company can't bid electronically for German government contracts because of a lack of mutual recognition of the countries' respective electronic signature infrastructures.
The new regulation will change that, as it will make signatures from one EU country valid in all the others.
The regulation enables the use of electronic means of identification and trust services such as electronic signatures and electronic seals by citizens, businesses and public administrations to access online services or manage electronic transactions.
The new rules will allow business and governments to cut back on costly and cumbersome paperwork, which should save billions of euros in the EU public procurement industry, which is worth trillions a year, Kroes said.
"Cut the bill by just one percent and you would save €20 billion a year. It can be done: e-government services in Europe are set to yield savings of nearly €15 billion by 2020," she said.
By cutting the need for physical signatures, companies, for example, can save money on travel and administrative overheads when they want to participate in a public call for tender in another country. Cutting red tape can increase profit and "can make the difference between expansion and stagnation for small and medium-sized businesses," according to the Commission.
EU citizens will also reap benefits.
They will be able to carry out secure cross-border electronic transactions, while enrolling in a foreign university or accessing electronic health records should also be made easier with an electronic identification document (eID). Citizens moving to another member state will be able to manage registration and all other administration online, cutting out the paperwork, the Commission said.
What's more, security and privacy concerns should also be reduced, as citizens and businesses can use their own national eIDs to access services online, it added.
The provided legal framework however is only the first step, Kroes said. She called on the private sector to help everyone benefit from the new rules.
The full system still has to be implemented, and that could take a while since rules for trust services will apply from mid-2016 and mandatory mutual recognition of electronic IDs will apply from mid-2018.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org