Written by Philip Boucher,
On 11 May 2017, the STOA workshop ‘Spotlight on blockchain: a new generation of digital services’ provided a unique opportunity for the public to join policy-makers, technology experts and businesses to discover the wide-ranging opportunities and challenges presented by blockchain technology. In the course of the workshop, co-organised with the European Commission’s DG CONNECT, we heard panellists debate whether the technology was the best thing since sliced bread, the end of civilisation as we know it or, perhaps, both.
Opening the event, Eva Kaili, MEP and STOA Chair, reminded participants that it was not only payments that could be decentralised by blockchain technology, but also contracts, personal identification, music and even energy. She further highlighted the potential role of blockchain in re-establishing trust between citizens and political or financial institutions.
How blockchain works, and what it can do
The first keynote speech was given by Vinay Gupta, who explained how the technology worked, and how big an impact it could have on our lives. Following this, two panel discussions delved deeper into specific applications of blockchain. The first panel, introduced and moderated by Jakob von Weizsäcker, MEP and the European Parliament’s rapporteur on virtual currencies, focused on Blockchain for Financial Services. This included discussions on how start-ups, banks and insurance companies are testing and proposing blockchain-based solutions and the associated challenges and opportunities. The second panel, introduced and moderated by Eva Kaili looked beyond financial applications to consider A New Generation of Blockchain-Based Services, with panellists describing their experience and ideas for how blockchains could be used to manage intellectual property rights, energy, voting and supply chains, or even to transform the democratic system.
Speaking to EuroparlTV during the event, Eva Kaili highlighted that blockchain could make a huge difference to our everyday lives because transactions and contracts can be executed without intermediaries.
‘This could actually be a revolution because it creates a whole new way of thinking about trust.’ Eva Kaili, MEP and STOA Chair
Surprising conclusion on need for policy action
There was plenty of time for broad and lively discussions, with panellists and participants engaging in debates ranging from the practical challenges faced by blockchain start-ups in opening bank accounts, to the ideological considerations of how blockchain technologies could herald new forms of democracy in the decades to come.
The room was packed for the event, with the live streaming followed by hundreds, and the hashtag #EUBlockchain trending on Twitter for much of the day. All participants, both in the room and following online, were invited to have their say on various aspects of blockchain development via a Mentimeter poll. Of more than 650 participants, 70 % responded that blockchain required EU-level action either ‘critically’ or ‘very urgently’. This opinion contrasts with frequently repeated calls for minimum regulatory intervention to avoid stifling innovation. Asked to specify which areas of EU regulation are currently inadequate to respond to the challenges presented by blockchain, the participants responded that taxation, banking and currencies were by far the most pressing concerns.
Blockchain to stay in the limelight
There is little doubt that there will be more debates and initiatives on blockchain technology at the European Parliament in the coming months and years. Those that missed this event are invited to catch up via the archived webstream, and to read recent EPRS publications on the topic including ‘How blockchain technology could change our lives’; What if blockchain changes social values’ and ‘Distributed ledger technology and financial markets’.