Ministers consider Delors' 100bn pounds hi-tech proposals

JACQUES Delors wants Europe to spend another 150bn ecus ( pounds 112bn) on telecommunications over the next 10 years. The European Union's finance ministers yesterday said that they might agree to help.

So might you if, like thousands in Brussels yesterday, you could not get a phone line that worked. A software fault threw national and international lines out of kilter, sending business and personal users alike into a screaming frenzy. The quality and quantity of the telecommunications infrastructure in Europe is simply not up to the task.

Telecommunications and information technology are among the main priorities in Mr Delors' White Paper, which was agreed at the summit of European Union leaders on Saturday. Yesterday, finance ministers set up a working group to study the ideas in the Commission President's paper, including how to finance them. A group of 'eminent persons' has been detailed to report to the next meeting of EU leaders.

High technology is one of the key ways, the paper argues, of boosting competitiveness and creating jobs. Building what Mr Delors calls a 'common information area' will buttress the advantages of the single market, it says, in a sector that is rapidly changing and where Europe faces stiff competition from the US and Japan.

The most obvious references to information technology in the report concern big, headline-grabbing, money-eating projects. The paper says that 150bn ecus will be needed over the next 10 years.

It lists eight initiatives. They include a high-speed communication network, electronic mail, video services, links to allow office workers to communicate, and building an integrated services digital network, links that allow voices, images or data to be sent down the same line.

The idea is to connect people working at home, doctors, training facilities, manufacturing plants and even consumers. The main cancer research centres would be linked up; so would 100 universities and schools - and tax authorities.

Research and development is another important element. The EU will spend 12bn ecus between 1994 and 1998, less than the Commission originally wanted but more than some states said they could stand.

It all costs a lot of money. The EU itself is unlikely to put up more than a fraction of the cash, with most coming from national governments and the private sector. They are already gearing up to invest. In the US, their competitors are doing the same as part of President Bill Clinton's project for 'information superhighways' - one of the inspirations for the Delors project. But more will be needed, and there is still disagreement about how, and whether, the EU should raise it.

But parallel to the big task of creating the physical links is something even more important, in the view of most large companies and some governments: deregulating the telephone service. This is an important part of the White Paper, one that the Government backs - because Britain has already gone most of the way down the line.

The importance of these new industries to Europe helps to explain why the audiovisual sector has become such an element in the Gatt talks. It includes a range of new products and technologies in preparation, many using precisely the links that the Delors White Paper proposes to construct. It is hardly surprising that the EU is fighting hard to protect its interests, when so much cash is on the line.

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