Europe’s digital sovereignty deserves a strategy, not incantations

Cyrille Dalmont, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute

June 4, 2020 • Opinion •

The European Union needs to stop trying to replicate the digital strategies of major powers and start acting with strong political will.

The global health crisis we are going through has highlighted the many flaws generated by the unbridled globalization of recent years, both in terms of our strategic supplies and our ability to react in the event of a major crisis.

In the absence of an industrial fabric and secure national sources of supply, our very great fragility has become apparent to everyone in the fields of health, defence and, of course, the economy. That was true in the field of information and communication as well, even though it was more subtle. Cédric O, the Secretary of State for Digital Technology, discovered it in concreto with Apple’s refusal to allow the use of Bluetooth on its smartphones when the StopCovid application, which was just deployed on Tuesday, is not running. This umpteenth incident involving the government’s digital tracking application is revealing a considerable issue at stake.

The United States and China make no secret of their desire to use their digital champions to consolidate their economic, military and geostrategic domination.

Every day, the debate on French and European sovereignty is the subject of declarations that are as incantatory as they are useless in view of the reality of the global balance of power, because sovereignty cannot be decreed, but is founded on a strong political will that is imposed on everyone. This is true in the digital domain perhaps even more than any other. Indeed, the United States and China have been leading the race in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital, robotics and home automation for several years thanks to a very clearly offensive and expansionist strategy.

The United States and China make no secret of their desire to use their digital champions to establish their economic, military, geostrategic and digital sovereignty dominance while the European Union (EU) struggles to raise modest capital and enforce its sacrosanct competition laws. Yet the EU (at least officially) also wants to become a major player in the AI and digital fields and launched this year, on the 19 February its White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, promoting « an European approach based on excellence and trust », to which many announcements were made.

One can only fear the worst after the unprecedented censorship of Donald Trump by the private company Twitter on May 29th.

This White Paper is a perfect illustration of the EU’s original inability to see itself as anything other than a simple free trade area in which the European citizen is merely an economic operator, without soul or conscience, the final consumer of the technological products resulting from the collection of his data by foreign digital giants. We can therefore only fear the worst after the unprecedented censorship suffered by Donald Trump, whatever one may think of him, by the private company Twitter on 29 May this year. With no democratic legitimacy and no judicial decision to do so, this act of censorship against the president of the world’s leading power suggests what the rights of an ordinary European citizen can be!

Beyond these observations, however, it is the very ideological’ foundation of the European strategy that is problematic. What is the EU’s grand plan for technologies which, like gunpowder or the fission of the atom in their time, can lead us to wonder or terror? It is non-existent. There is the announcement of the desire to attract EUR 20 billion of investment per year over the next decade, to promote trade and cooperation between States, to create a research centre, to replenish a pilot fund of EUR 100 million for SMEs and start-ups and … that is all.

The EU is content to play the role of a follower, trying to (badly) reproduce economic models developed in other parts of the world, while refusing to become a real major player in the digital world, which would require the establishment of an independent European « ecosystem » combining investment, research, industry and distribution channels. But the establishment of this ecosystem would impose two major prerequisites that are totally contrary to the EU’s DNA as it has been conceived since the Maastricht Treaty.

Germany has adopted the specifications proposed by the Apple-Google duo for its digital tracing tool, called Corona-Warn-App.

The first is that, in order to achieve the objective pursued, Member States should, as a first step at least, finance national undertakings (which will necessarily be loss-making) in breach of competition law rules. The second is that our common democratic values, respect for fundamental rights and civil liberties should take precedence over the logic of competition and the monetisation of digital traces and personal data – for, by dint of renunciations, we will end up finding charms in the ethics of the “techno-dictatorship” that China is putting in place. The digital tracing tools created in several European countries, including France, in recent weeks are worrying milestones in this regard.

In the absence of a real overall strategy (the Covid-19 health crisis we are going through is a perfect illustration of this), the European states are therefore moving more and more towards abandoning their sovereignty in favour of other economic zones (above all the United States and China).Germany has adopted the specifications proposed by the Apple-Google binomial for its digital tracing tool, called Corona-Warn-App, even if the application itself will be developed by SAP SE and Deutsche Telekom. The major innovative projects of the past such as the ECSC, EURATOM or Airbus are now impossible to initiate in a European Union which is virtually reduced to a large market with little political substance. And in the world of titans that is taking shape before our eyes, this can only lead to its military, economic, cultural but also digital vassalization.

And since there is little hope on the EU side, another path must be explored: that of strong inter-state cooperation, outside the EU framework, between willing players, who would agree to pool the resources and skills needed to ensure their future digital independence and sovereignty. There is an urgent need to reflect on this.