The European Commission has launched a draft strategy to respond to cyberattacks and other disruptions to critical information networks across the European Union.

Two years ago the e-mail system of the Estonian parliament was crippled for 12 hours and the country's banks were forced offline for a day following such an attack. Similar suspected attacks were reported in Lithuania and Georgia last year.

The report also comes a day after Canadian researchers published the results of a 10-month cyberespionage investigation that found that more than 1,000 computers in "high-value" locations in 103 countries, have been spied on, with evidence suggesting China may be to blame. The researchers called the network "GhostNet," after the gh0st RAT (Remote Access Tool) software it utilizes.

Meanwhile, there were 50 reported cases of undersea telecom cables being severed due to natural causes in 2007 alone, the Commission said in a statement.

The Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said there is a 10 per cent to 20 per cent probability that European telecom networks will be hit by a major breakdown in the next 10 years, with the potential economic cost of such a disruption estimated at around €193 billion (£179 billion).

"The Information Society brings us countless new opportunities and it is our duty to ensure that it develops on a solid and sustainable base," said Viviane Reding, commissioner for information society and media. "There must be no weak links in Europe's cybersecurity," she added.

Electronic communication services and networks have become an essential part of the European economy, with 93 per cent of E.U. companies and 51 per cent of European citizens regularly using the internet in 2007.

E-commerce amounted to 11 per cent of total sales in the E.U. in 2007, while some 77 per cent of businesses accessed banking services via the internet and 65 per ent of companies used online public services.

Communications networks underpin the functioning of key areas including energy distribution, water supply, transport and other critical services, the Commission said.

EU member states take different approaches to tackling cyberattacks and other disruptions. The Commission pointed out that a low level of preparedness in one country can make others more vulnerable, and that a lack of coordination among the 27 member states reduces the effectiveness of countermeasures.

It wants businesses, public administrations and private citizens in all 27 countries to focus their efforts. For example, it has called for the establishment of a European Public-Private Partnership for Resilience, which will help businesses to share experience and information with public authorities.

It also wants to form a European information sharing and alert system in coordination with ENISA, the European Network and Information Security Agency.

The Commission also aims to spark a debate over how to set E.U. priorities for the long term resilience and stability of the Internet, "with a view to proposing principles and guidelines to be promoted internationally."