Digital Sovereignty - The EU in a Contest for Influence and Leadership


The concept of ‘digital sovereignty’ has become more prevalent over the last few years, although its meaning remains diffuse. Between Chinese techno-authoritarianism and the U.S. model of surveillance capitalism, Europe is heading towards a third way.

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The European third way to shape the digital ecosystem seems to be by exercising its regulatory power.

The European Union has become a trendsetter in digital policymaking over the last few years. With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, the EU has raised privacy standards globally. Furthermore, it has ordered antitrust fines on tech companies, such as Apple and Google, and is shaping the debate on ethical artificial intelligence. However, there is increasing concern that people and businesses in the EU are losing control over their data and that the EU is struggling to enforce legislation in the digital environment. This has led to a debate regarding Europe’s place in the digital order and the terms of ‘European digital sovereignty’ or ‘strategic autonomy’. The concept of digital sovereignty is popular because many political groups can relate to it to their own viewpoint; depending on whom you ask, it means something very different. It is helpful to take a close look at different dimensions and factors shaping the current debate on digital sovereignty.

Between Chinese techno-authoritarianism and the U.S. model of surveillance capitalism, a notion coined by the American author and Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, meaning an economic system centred around the commodification of personal data with the purpose of profit-making, the EU is searching for greater digital independence. As such, the European third way to shape the digital ecosystem seems to be by exercising its regulatory power. The move in political discussions towards a greater European digital sovereignty can also be understood as a response to the digital structural change of the last years with ever-faster computing capacities, the increased spread of cloud computing, or more and more services tailored to the individual.

Most recently, lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated that many EU Member States could be better positioned in terms of digital infrastructure e.g. regarding the uneven expansion of broadband or the offer of digital education. The necessary mobility restrictions imposed upon people during the pandemic have been a catalyst for digital infrastructure development, and the pandemic has revealed the importance of telecoms infrastructure to European citizens.

Digital sovereignty focusing on people

According to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, digital sovereignty does not mean protectionism but ‘describes the ability both of individuals and of society to shape the digital transformation in a self-determined way’. She underlines ‘that technological innovation has to be in the service of humanity, not the other way around [and that] commitment to a shared, free, open and secure global internet is in fact an expression of sovereignty’. Merkel gives the concept of digital sovereignty a human dimension, pointing out that the internet ‘cannot and must not be shaped by states and governments alone’, as it affects all of us and therefore people must be involved and have control over their data.

In this understanding, the individual is elevated to the status of a sovereign, and democratic control by the individual is in opposition to the concentration of power, be it by governments or companies. The higher the individual's digital competence, the more he or she can contribute to his or her own informational self-determination, which is a prerequisite for people helping to shape the digital realm.

The power of the individual or in other words ‘European consumer power’ is a factor not to be underestimated. Big tech companies do not want to renounce the nearly half a billion Europeans as consumers. Europe’s technological interdependence with China, where European companies are strongly embedded into value chains, equally plays a crucial role. (Read more on 'China: Trust, 5G, and the coronavirus factor' by ECFR's Janka Oertel.) This market power alone gives the EU leverage to shape the digital future.

Digital sovereignty as standard industrial policy

Digital sovereignty also has an industrial policy dimension, as described in the last State of the Union Address by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Europe is in the middle of a contest for influence and leadership when it comes to tech and its regulation. Von der Leyen referred to the coming decade of 2020 to 2030 as ‘Europe's Digital Decade’ and claimed leadership on digital issues; otherwise, she argued, others will set the standards and Europe will only be able to follow. There is a fear of the economic and social influence of non-EU tech companies, threatening EU citizens' control over their personal data, and being too dependent on foreign tech constrains the growth of EU tech companies. This is why 20 percent of NextGenerationEU, the Covid-19 recovery fund of 750 billion euros, will be spent on digital transformation.

The goals of the outgoing German Council Presidency were to ‘help Europe remain competitive and become more independent of the USA and China.’ At the operating system level of technology, the U.S. is the undisputed leader. At the level of network technology the EU still has important players such as Nokia or Ericsson; however, China is catching up massively. In emerging technologies – like quantum computing or artificial intelligence – the EU is lagging behind the US and China, but it still harbours the ambition to become a pioneer in these fields.

In the short term, Europe will probably not be able to make up for the technological lead of the U.S. or China. Nonetheless, the EU’s long-term budget, coupled with NextGenerationEU, the largest stimulus package ever financed through the EU budget, is a historic opportunity to build an up-to-date digital infrastructure and bring the European industrial and research landscape to a new level.

Geopolitics and digital sovereignty

The conversation about digital sovereignty also has a geopolitical dimension. The dependence on the U.S. and China for digital technologies has not been perceived as a problem for a long time in Europe. During the Trump administration, however, the relationship between the U.S. and China has become tenser and Europe risks being caught up in the middle.

The revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013, the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and the disinformation campaign leading to the 2016 Brexit referendum, have all demonstrated that the EU should have legitimate concerns about foreign actors and companies controlling and abusing personal data. The debate on the roll-out of 5G telecommunication networks, where Chinese companies dominate the market, has ignited a debate concerning national security in the U.S. and the EU. The European market for telecoms infrastructure has been dominated by European suppliers up to recently; it is now dominated by Chinese companies, making the EU particularly reliant on them and creating serious risks for critical infrastructure in the EU. This makes the EU on a political level as well as on a technological level vulnerable to and dependent on China.

In the American context however, the laissez-faire approach by Silicon Valley corporations is now being questioned. We can witness a change in the debate over a data protection law at the federal level. The state of California for example has already modelled its own privacy legislation (California Consumer Privacy Act) on the GDPR. Slowly but surely the understanding is gaining ground that self-regulation and voluntary commitments on data protection by companies are not enough in many areas.

While the EU’s GDPR raised the bar for data protection standards worldwide, the EU’s ability to enforce such laws is still lagging behind. Companies such as Google and Facebook benefit from the fact that their services appear to have no alternative, and their competitive advantage lies in violating European laws like GDPR and getting away with it.

Caught in the middle or a digital ‘third way’?

Rather than being a tech superpower, the EU has proven that it is a regulatory superpower. Even if democratic negotiation processes are tough and lengthy, the constant negotiation of common values, the complexity of political processes and the multilingualism of the EU democracy are not obstacles, but strengths.

A European digital ‘third way’ should focus on civil rights and self-determination rather than the choice between the U.S. and the Chinese approach to technology; it is possible to shape rules for the digital environment without striving for complete autonomy from both powers. The recently introduced Digital Services Act (DSA), the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the European Democracy Action Plan as well as the Data Governance Act offer a great opportunity to establish rules for the digital space, where people are able to act independently and in accordance with democratic values. According to the Green Member of the European Parliament Alexandra Geese, the DSA and the DMA ‘have the potential to become a new fundamental law for online platforms’. The riots in the United States capitol have demonstrated that the influence of online platforms is a global matter of urgency. Without clear rules and democratic safeguards, the dangers posed by online platforms will put our democracies at risk. Better platform regulation, political education, digital literacy and support for independent journalism are important pillars that contribute to a healthy democracy and a healthy online ecosystem.

The future of an open, democratic, and international digital sphere depends on democratic players such as the EU and the U.S. working out their differences when it comes to intelligence services, open trade, and defending fundamental rights. They must agree on a set of values that includes freedom, democracy, equality, pluralism, non-discrimination and tolerance to shape global standards. A democratic coalition in the digital sphere, rather than a quest for strategic autonomy or digital sovereignty, is the way forward for all democratic countries.


This commentary was also published in German on