This article was published through the Carnegie Europe Program.
Strategic Autonomy Isn’t Just Defense, It’s Also Technology
Over the past two decades, the impact of new and emerging technologies and increased digitalization have become the prime drivers of globalization and international competition. States around the world are making digital autonomy, technological supremacy, and innovation the cornerstones of their diplomatic, security, and economic efforts. The European Union (EU) is no exception.
The coronavirus pandemic and its broader implications have further highlighted the importance of digital transformation in all aspects of society, as well as the need to reduce strategic dependencies in key, high-end technology areas, value and supply chains, and critical infrastructures. Against the backdrop of a deteriorating geopolitical and security environment, it comes as no surprise that European digital and technological sovereignty are at the center of current EU policy discussions.
There are indeed signs of a new and yet conceptually ambiguous narrative taking shape around building the EU’s technological innovation power. What exactly are the practical and policy implications of a new “technological sovereignty” narrative? And more importantly, what EU tech sovereignty efforts have been made in line with broader European strategic autonomy objectives?
The concept of European strategic autonomy is certainly not new. It initially emerged in discussions related to the EU’s space and security and defense policy strategies, as well as in terms of upping the EU’s game in military capability building. Political discussions about European strategic autonomy indeed have a long and controversial history.
The term has deep historical roots in French strategic culture and thinking, and since the 1990s, it has typically referred to the notion that the EU should be able to carry out modest-size, out-of-area, and militarily well-equipped crisis management operations, especially in its own neighborhood, and independently of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
While the publication of the EU’s Global Strategy (EUGS) in June 2016 is credited for putting the concept of strategic autonomy on the EU’s foreign and security policy agendas, the reality is that various EU institutions and member states have long been discussing the need to upgrade the EU’s defense technological and industrial portfolio and crisis management capabilities. Key to such debates was the preservation of a competitive European Defence Technological and Industrial Base.
In the words of Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission, the concept of strategic autonomy is indeed not new, as it has been extensively used in the military realm and for a long time was limited to issues related to European security and defense. According to Borrell, strategic autonomy is also a “process of political survival” for the EU, and its logic should be expanded to other sectors.
This narrow security and defense focus has been recently expanded by the geopolitically focused European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen and under the stated ambition to revamp the European power agenda in various strategic sectors. The underlying logic behind strategic autonomy has started to increasingly encompass discussions about technological protectionism and capacity building in new domains related to digitalization, data, space, energy, and new and emerging technologies.
The new technological sovereignty narrative is meant to build EU-wide consensus around the need to preserve European leadership and autonomy in various key technological areas. It is the EU’s attempt to put forward a pragmatic and autonomous approach to avoid dependencies and geopolitical coercion in critical technological sectors.
The stakes could not be higher. Indeed, the incumbent commission has started to actively circulate various notions of sovereignty derived from discussions on strategic autonomy and defense sovereignty by populating the discursive landscape with related concepts such as technological, digital, and data sovereignty.
This expansion is revealing increasing fears that more protective autonomy in other policy areas than security and defense is needed to safeguard the EU’s economic and strategic interests and European values. Hence, the impact of terms such as sovereignty, power, and strategic autonomy floating around the technology, digitalization, and data spheres should not be easily disregarded.
These terms give strategic meaning to EU action and institutionalize different sectoral approaches to sovereignty building. They are also indicative of recent EU-led policy, regulatory, and funding efforts in the industrial, technological, and digital domains. But which are the most significant initiatives designed to consolidate the EU’s quest for various sovereignties, and do they amount to a coherent and integrated approach?
EU Technological Sovereignty Is in the Making
Behind the EU’s recent multiple sovereignty agendas is the need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation. The very label of a geopolitical European Commission implies a new level of engagement for the EU in the global balance of power. Technological and digital sovereignty are at the heart of such ambitions.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the urgency to shore up technological, digital, and regulatory responses to preserve the EU’s economic clout, industrial competitiveness, and geopolitical influence, as well as to reduce dependencies in critical technology areas. What has the EU done so far, and what must it still do to meet that goal of technological sovereignty?
Four cross-cutting dimensions can help unpack the concept of technological sovereignty and better structure the discussion about EU initiatives, programs, and instruments:
- Research and capability-development efforts in security and defense
- Investments in cutting-edge research and innovation and in digitalization
- Critical infrastructure resilience and security of supply
- Tech-related regulatory activism
Defense Capability Development
According to Arnout Molenaar, the head of division in the European External Action Service, dealing with security and defense policy is also related to “a learning curve for the Union to develop a ‘hard power’ mentality.” Technology plays a fundamental role in terms of making possible the EU’s hard military power ambitions—not only to act in a tense geopolitical setting but also to defend the EU’s interests in areas related to technology, security, and defense matters.
In this regard, collaborative EU defense research and development (R&D) initiatives have been prioritized at the EU level for some time now to support the competitiveness of the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base.
EU institutions and agencies have made considerable efforts to preserve Europe’s edge in key areas, including emerging and disruptive security technologies and infrastructures such as cybersecurity, drones, secure networks, space technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum technology.
Indeed, recent EU initiatives such as the European Commission’s European Defence Fund (EDF) as part of the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), 2021–2027—as well as its precursor programs, the Preparatory Action on Defence Research and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme—are intended to financially empower the EU’s autonomy in defense technology and industry and its research and innovation capacity in future-oriented and disruptive defense technologies.
Such initiatives have been framed as timely catalysts and potential game changers for increasing collective European action and for fostering cutting-edge defense research and innovation in Europe. The commission funded the Preparatory Action on Defence Research as a test case of defense-related research and technology projects, pulling directly from the EU budget line rather than from member states’ joint initiatives. This scheme was a concrete step designed to demonstrate the added value of EU-supported defense technology research and innovation.
If successfully implemented, the EDF is expected to bolster more lucrative and joint research and capability-driven investment schemes in defense technologies across Europe and to increase the EU’s global leadership position in strategic tech sectors. The commission has already pledged a relatively small percentage of up to 8 percent of the EDF funding to disruptive technology actions.
However, with the initially proposed amount of 13 billion euros ($15.4 billion) now reduced to about 8 billion euros ($9.5 billion), the EDF’s real potential to create value added and to incentivize technological and industrial cooperation and competitiveness in Europe is unclear.
Indeed, this reduction could be accounted for by the fact that some member states either took a budget-restrictive approach to the entire 2021–2027 MFF or judged that on balance, they would benefit less from the EDF than their contribution to it and thus opted for reducing the overall funding.
What is certain is that the EDF marks an important paradigm shift in consolidating the EU’s increased supranational activism in the field of defense technology and industry as a basis for building the EU’s military hard power and defense portfolio. The fund also consolidates the European Commission’s increasing role and strong interventionism in the EU security and defense policy fields that have traditionally been the exclusive preserve of member states’ decisionmaking.
There is also a clear message that developing the defense industry and technology base in Europe is key to strategic autonomy. Hence, logic dictates that defense-related technological sovereignty is central to the EU’s strategic autonomy. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the reduced funding dedicated to the EDF and the small percentage of it that is flagged for disruptive military technologies are sufficient to foster high-risk, high-reward technological innovation in the European defense sector.
Cross-Domain Approach to Innovation
The swift operationalization of the EDF, coupled by fostering synergies with other EU initiatives in terms of civil-military R&D cross-fertilization, might very well be what Europe needs to maintain its innovational and technological edge.
To this end, the commission’s Action Plan on Synergies Between Civil, Defence and Space Industries from February 2021—the so-called Three-Point Belt Plan—is one way ahead to propose a more horizontal and cross-domain approach for boosting research, technology development, and the EU’s overall innovation power.
Announced in the Industrial Strategy for Europe from March 2020, the commission’s 2021 Three-Point Belt Plan aims to establish a structured approach and create new opportunities for innovation synergies among relevant EU-funded programs and instruments, especially in the case of emerging and disruptive technologies. It defines critical technologies as relevant across the defense, space, and related civil industries and as essential to Europe’s technological sovereignty by reducing risks of overdependence on external players.
To make this happen, the commission will set up within its services an EU Observatory of Critical Technologies, which will be in charge of regular monitoring and analysis of key technology areas with a view to closing existing gaps and dependencies. It will also use technology road maps and forecasting to identify emerging technologies.
This undertaking will ostensibly facilitate spin-off from EU funding for space and defense R&D and spin-in from civil-driven innovation. The seventeen-page-long action plan mentions the term “technological sovereignty” no less than eight times, while the word “synergies” appears thirty-one times.
This is significant as the document puts forward a more comprehensive civil-military approach to innovation, especially in the case of critical technologies, with a view to scaling up the existing EU toolbox by streamlining various initiatives such as the EDF, the EU Space program, and other EU instruments.
The real challenge is how to foster innovation and facilitate coordinated action between programs and sectoral instruments such as the Digital Europe Programme, which is focused on building the strategic digital capacities of the EU and on facilitating the wide deployment of digital technologies; the Horizon Europe program for research and innovation; the Connecting Europe Facility; the European Innovation Council; InvestEU; and NextGenerationEU, the temporary instrument designed to boost Europe’s post-pandemic recovery.
Yet the relatively low numbers allocated for research and innovation in the EU’s key funding programs for research and innovation, such as Horizon Europe, might suggest the contrary. There is also the question of differing and sometimes conflicting research and innovation cultures in Europe’s unevenly distributed civil, defense, and space industries.
Another related issue is that of digital sovereignty, a term sometimes used interchangeably with technological sovereignty. Without going into theoretical debates about the two concepts, by and large digital sovereignty is yet another iteration of technological sovereignty from external players in cyberspace. It rests, according to EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton, on three inseparable pillars: “computing power, control over our data and secure connectivity.” This means that, in the case of digital sovereignty, Europe wants to free itself from its hardware and software dependencies either from third countries or Big Tech players.
In doing so, Europe aims to foster its growing digital infrastructure and economy, while making sure the union’s core democratic values also apply in the digital era. Furthermore, according to the European Commission, a secure and sovereign, European-based, resilient, and sustainable digital infrastructure is vital to this transformation.
In this respect, the Digital Europe Programme also aims to boost the EU’s innovation power. It is meant to up the investment stakes in supercomputing, AI, and cybersecurity, including via a network of Digital Innovation Hubs across Europe.
Complementarity with other EU programs and strategic plans is yet again key to achieving digital sovereignty, especially in high technology areas such as AI. For instance, the European Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence identified the need to develop a comprehensive policy and governance approach to AI for the EU to “become a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications.”
According to the document, one of the main building blocks to achieve this goal is an “ecosystem of excellence” as well as public-private partnerships that will leverage up to 20 billion euros of private and public sector resources along the entire value chain, from research and innovation to accelerating the deployment and uptake of AI-based solutions benefitting public services and businesses.
First published in 2018, the new and updated 2021 Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence further consolidates collaboration between the commission and member states to enable joint actions, public-private partnerships, and research and innovation networks. Funding will be allocated via the Digital Europe Programme and Horizon Europe program, the Recovery and Resilience Facility that foresees a target goal of 20 percent of expenditure on digital goals, and the Cohesion Policy program.
The overall goal is to improve Europe’s competitiveness in the global digital economy, support digitalization, and build innovation capacity in new digital technologies. It also comes as no surprise that the EU’s new Cybersecurity Strategy in the Digital Decade from December 2020 identifies key technologies like AI, quantum computing, and future generation networks as essential to Europe’s digital future and cybersecurity.
Digitalization and Infrastructure Resilience
Several initiatives have also been aimed at strengthening and rationalizing the EU’s resilience in the case of critical infrastructure, including in terms of digital infrastructure connectivity. The EU’s Critical Information Infrastructure Protection from as early as 2009 aimed to strengthen the security and resilience of vital information and communication technology infrastructures.
There are growing risks associated with the increased digitalization of societies, critical infrastructure resilience, and the security of supply chains, especially in terms of managing critical dependencies. Related to this, the European Commission’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF2) Digital program aims to support investments in digital connectivity infrastructures during the period of the 2021–2027 MFF. Among foreseen actions are the deployment of and access to very high-capacity networks, including 5G systems, and the significant upgrade of existing backbone networks including submarine cables.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the issue of European sovereignty over supply chains has also received a renewed sense of urgency. The 5G joint toolbox endorsed by the commission in January 2020 plays an important role as a major enabler for critical infrastructure resilience that will help mitigate the main cybersecurity risks of future generations’ mobile networks and leverage a robust set of cybersecurity measures in Europe.
Thanks to the new toolbox, the EU and member states can now more effectively protect critical infrastructure connectivity. At the heart of EU and member states’ concerns around 5G is the interference by foreign states, in particular China, providing 5G equipment via state-controlled companies and high-risk vendors that present immediate security threats against increasingly digitalized economies and societies in Europe.
This may indeed jeopardize Europe’s critical infrastructure resilience. Similar concerns have been expressed regarding the need to promote and protect sensitive technologies with the potential for dual-use applications. These concerns also come up in relation to the common framework for screening foreign direct investments and the EU regulation on such screening that became operational in October 2020.
Similarly, the commission’s approach to modernize the EU’s export controls on sensitive dual-use technologies is intended to strengthen the EU’s response to evolving security risks and to the impact of new and emerging technologies by better addressing the risks of human rights violations associated with trade in sensitive cyber surveillance technologies.
Other challenges could impact the EU’s innovation resilience, such as potential geopolitical disruptions to critical supply chains like in the case of critical raw materials or semiconductors. This has already been played out in the technological war between the United States and China and the growing weaponization of trade policies.
Accordingly, Europe risks becoming exposed to global tech wars if it does not promote homegrown solutions and address geopolitically risky dependencies in critical technology domains. This has been made clear in the case of the global semiconductor value chain on design, materials, and advanced manufacturing.
The design and production of processor semiconductors are one key area where coordinated plans from twenty-one member states are encouraged under the NextGenerationEU funding scheme. Yet the expense and level of technological sophistication required in creating a chip design ecosystem in Europe imply that it will take years before Europe can develop cutting-edge capabilities.
The European Commission has also taken steps to address risks related to critical raw materials and supply chains, having released in September 2020 an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials accompanied by an updated List of Critical Raw Materials and a foresight study examining dependent sectors and strategic technology areas for the 2030 to 2050 horizon.
Tech-Related Regulatory Activism
Equally, the rush to regulate and set technological standards brings about new geopolitical tensions. Considering that new and emerging technologies are becoming a crucial element in great power competition, their regulation is becoming increasingly politicized. Consequently, the EU has taken a global lead concerning the creation of a regime of international norms and standards governing emerging disruptive technologies.
As shown by the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU’s strategic edge primarily resides in its market, normative, and regulatory power—what has been described as the Brussels effect. Yet in the current international climate of a so-called technological war being waged by the United States and China, there is still a long way to go for Europe to become a leader in socially responsible and sustainable high-tech industries.
For this to happen, the EU should reinforce the ethical development and deployment of new and emerging technologies, as well as strengthen its strategic autonomy in critical technology areas. In a nutshell, for the EU to become a global leader in regulation and standards setting, it should also invest heavily in research and innovation so that it becomes a source of cutting-edge technology, not just regulation.
EU leaders have argued that technological sovereignty is also about protecting European culture and values, in which human-centered autonomy is prioritized by emphasizing individual citizens’ sovereign rights to their own data and in their interactions with AI.
With the new strategy for a Europe fit for the digital age, the European Commission wants to deliver on the promise of human-centered and risk-based new tech regulation, together with a comprehensive regulatory packaging including the European Digital Strategy, the European Data Strategy, the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, as well as the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence and the EU’s latest AI regulation package.
Now more than ever, the devil is in the details. The Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence already proposed creating an “ecosystem of trust” in Europe by putting forward a legal framework that addresses the risks for fundamental rights and safety under the label of a secure, human-centered, and trustworthy AI.
In the European Commission Proposal for AI regulation on Laying Down Harmonised Rules on Artificial Intelligence (Artificial Intelligence Act) and Amending Certain Union Legislative Acts (April 21, 2021), the EU is proposing a legal framework that does not look at AI technology itself but at how AI is used and for what purposes. It also differentiates between four different categories of uses that have no or minimal risk or limited, high, or unacceptable risk.
The high-risk uses of AI are the main focus of the framework due to their huge impact on citizens’ lives and public interest. In particular, all remote biometric identification systems are considered high risk and subjected to strict requirements. If the proposed legal framework were to be adopted, it would position the EU as potentially taking a strong stance on high-risk AI systems, which would be subjected to a new set of strict obligations.
Some limited uses—for instance, the use of AI in social scoring systems or AI applications that manipulate human behavior—are prohibited outright because they are considered unacceptable. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the enforcement of these rules falls within the responsibility of national authorities to assess whether AI systems meet their obligations.
The EU has also underscored the importance of global rules, international regulatory convergence, proactive agenda setting in technological standardization, and a commitment to fundamental rights protections when it comes to new (digital) technologies in collaboration with key like-minded partners.
The draft EU AI regulation, in a sweeping stroke, associates the EU’s technological leadership with the stated ambition to become a “global leader in the development of secure, trustworthy and ethical” AI. From this perspective, only “common action at [the] Union level can also protect the Union’s digital sovereignty and leverage its tools and regulatory powers to shape global rules and standards.”
The union’s great expectations are understandable, yet they should be tempered. The EU may have a harder time in setting global rules and red lines. Also, the international influence of the EU’s AI rule book might actually be decided in a transatlantic context and under the recently announced EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council. What is more, the EU and member states need to actively engage in the ongoing international discussions on the creation of a global AI norms regime, especially in relevant bilateral, multilateral, regional, and UN fora.
The above tour d’horizon aims to address key building blocks in what potentially constitutes Europe’s quest for defense technological power. Without a doubt, in an era of global digitalization and geostrategic rivalry, technology is creating new sources of power and security in international affairs. That is why European competitiveness in innovation, research, and technology is so important for achieving strategic autonomy.
Technology has been and remains a key ingredient for global power projection. Breton stated that Europe must now lay the foundations or find the keys to its multiple sovereignties for the next twenty years. Given increasing global technological competition, the rallying call of the day in Brussels is for the EU to learn the language of power and secure its digital and economic future.
The four interconnected dimensions outlined above—cursorily mapping the EU’s various programs, strategies, and initiatives—represent key analytical entry points in understanding the EU’s recent activism toward building a more coherent European sovereignty agenda with technology at its core.
By following this reasoning, European technological sovereignty is manifested across military capacity building, innovation capacity, infrastructure resilience, or regulatory prowess. It is also a prerequisite for European strategic autonomy and the EU’s ability to act as an independent global actor.
Yet recent efforts for Europe to become more technologically sovereign can only be successful when they are coordinated and comprehensive, especially because the impact of emerging disruptive technologies is pervasive and cuts across many sectors. The challenge is to bring together and operationalize the different initiatives and instruments that comprise a complex governance structure reuniting EU institutions and agencies, EU member states, and commercial actors and industrial sectors.
In reality, most of the above initiatives are quite recent, and the EU has just begun to connect all of its financial resources and bridge its strategic and policy thinking across the four dimensions. For this to happen, there needs to be more willingness from EU institutions and member states to cooperate across interlinked political, strategic, economic, and technical matters.
While the EU is advancing in the regulation and governance of new and emerging technologies, it is not yet clear how recent and rather limited research funding initiatives will actually shore up the EU’s critical infrastructure resilience and innovation power in strategic technological domains. Only a persistent and substantial investment policy in future and emerging technologies can ensure the EU’s technological competitiveness, coupled with efforts to create a human rights–centric international norms regime for its ethical and responsible research and development.
If the EU can streamline its goals, interests, and values in such a plethora of defense and tech-related programs, harness the current transformative wave of innovation, and mitigate potential disruptions and human rights harms, it might well become more technologically sovereign in the decades to come. However, the jury is still out on what the future may hold.