Noah BarkinVisiting Academic Fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies

There is a strong argument for excluding Huawei from European 5G networks based on two factors alone: 1) the absolutely critical nature of this infrastructure for the future functioning of economies; and 2) the risk that Chinese suppliers could be forced by Beijing to cooperate in intelligence gathering, data theft, or sabotage.

From a national security perspective, this is close to a no-brainer. But the reality is that European countries are approaching this decision from different perspectives. And that means a common European position is illusory.

Britain, which on January 28 opted against excluding Huawei—despite intense pressure from its closest ally, the United States—is keen to keep the door open to China after Brexit. Huawei is deeply entrenched in the UK’s existing mobile network, and operators have lobbied aggressively against its exclusion. In Germany, fears of a Chinese backlash against the car industry have colored the debate. In both countries, politicians have spread the false narrative that a ban would lead to costly multi-year delays in the development of their 5G networks.

This shows that some European capitals are just not ready to think in geostrategic terms or choose sides between the United States and China. In all likelihood, regardless of their 5G choice, they won’t be able to avoid this for long.

Thorsten BennerCo-Founder and Director of the Global Public Policy Institute

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to make high-risk provider Huawei part of its 5G network is that of a nation that has given up on technological sovereignty.

Driven by pro-Beijing business interests and post-Brexit fears of Chinese retaliation, the UK makes its most critical infrastructure dependent on technology controlled by the party-state, opening itself up to further blackmail and sabotage. EU countries have no reason whatsoever to follow Britain’s path of weakness. The EU has all it takes to assert its technological sovereignty on 5G. With Ericsson and Nokia, it has two leading technology suppliers ready to “immediately deploy the fully fledged 5G,” as European Commissioner Thierry Breton points out. It has every interest in strengthening these companies in a very unfair competition with Chinese state capitalist players Huawei and ZTE.

A united EU is a formidable economic power ready to face any threats of Chinese retaliation. Europe can and will be a global leader on 5G rollout. Governments just need to set the right financial incentives for operators rather than milking them to the maximum in spectrum auctions. For this, it does not need to and should not rely on non-trustworthy suppliers under control of a state the EU deems a “systemic rival.”

Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Unlike the United States and Australia, Europe is unlikely to outright ban Huawei from building out its 5G wireless networks. Even so, what is needed is a more common European posture toward 5G.

The big three—France, Germany, and the UK—are all pursuing slightly different approaches. The British National Security Council’s recent conclusion that security risks from Huawei can be effectively managed is noteworthy. However, there are limits to how much this approach can be replicated by others who lack Britain’s rigorous security risk-mitigation solutions.

Those EU governments still grappling with the decision would do well to closely consider the European Commission’s common 5G risk assessment from last year and the toolbox of mitigating measures released on January 29. Though not calling for a ban of any particular country or company, the EU’s risk-based approach, which takes into account both technical and nontechnical factors, has merits. By following its recommendations, individual countries could also constrain China’s ability to threaten retaliation.

Ultimately, managing 5G security risks should not be about satisfying the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. What Europe desperately needs is a more ambitious and forward-leaning agenda for protecting its own technological sovereignty in a more competitive world.

Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Centre

A ban is simply not on. Most EU countries will follow the UK model and allow Huawei at least limited access to their 5G networks. Security professionals are divided on the risks involved and in the end it will be a political decision all-round. The United States will huff and puff, but their bullying tactics have been counterproductive.

Two questions arise. First, why have Europe and the United States been asleep for the past few years on the importance of developing 5G infrastructure? Second, where do you draw the line as regards protecting critical infrastructure? Are ports and nuclear power stations, where China is increasingly involved, any less sensitive than data networks?

At least the EU’s new industrial strategy with a strong emphasis on AI and high tech points the way forward—and it is essential that member states step up to the mark and pass the necessary budgets and legislation without delay.

Theresa FallonDirector of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies

“Can you imagine,” asked Matthew Pottinger, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, at the Raisina Dialogue 2020, “[former U.S. president] Ronald Reagan and [former UK prime minister] Margaret Thatcher have a conversation, and they say ‘you know, I think we should have the KGB come and build all our telecommunications and computer network systems, because they are offering a great discount.’” Pottinger got laughs, but Britain wasn’t persuaded.

Johnson announced on January 28 that Huawei will be allowed to build 5G in the UK with some caveats, which include that Huawei cannot be part of military bases. Johnson decided that the United States was bluffing on intelligence sharing and made it clear that economic interests outweighed security. It remains to be seen how Trump will respond to this choice.

This was quickly followed by the German government’s announcement on January 29 that it had intelligence proving that Huawei has cooperated with Chinese state security organs. The German foreign ministry concluded that Huawei cannot be considered a trusted vendor.

In addition, the European Commission’s much-anticipated toolbox was published on January 29. Although EU member states have sovereignty over 5G choices, they will be able to turn to the commission for assistance on foreign investment screening, competition rules, and certification of 5G security measures.

When it comes to 5G, what it really comes down to is trust. Who do Europeans want to provide their critical digital technology and infrastructure? Do they want 5G to be provided by suppliers that are beholden to governments accountable to no one, or do they want it from countries that abide by Europe’s founding principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law?

Caroline de GruyterEuropean Affairs Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

Of course it should. Huawei says its technology won’t be used by China to spy on us or steal data. Such guarantees, however, aren’t worth much. China has a law obliging Chinese citizens and companies to support and cooperate with the state in intelligence gathering.

Few European countries will ban Huawei outright, though. The United States and China are conducting a cold war on tech. The United States will retaliate if we allow Huawei into our 5G networks. China will retaliate if we don’t. Most European countries will try to avoid a row with either.

So we’re in a bind. Many governments may end up allowing Huawei to less “sensitive” parts of the networks, as the UK has done. Cyber intelligence services must determine what those parts are and protect the system vigorously. More investment in cyber intelligence is urgently needed.

It is not an ideal solution, but there is no need to be cynical about it. We live in an age where everyone hacks everyone and everyone spies on everyone. We wouldn’t be safe with an American vendor, either, or a Turkish one. I hope we learn from this and start working on a reliable, state-of-the-art European company. If ever one was needed, it is now.

Lyu JinghuaVisiting Scholar with the Cyber Policy Initiative of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite the consistent pressure from the United States, most European countries are reluctant to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward Huawei for many reasons.

Economic interests are apparently the first factor to consider. Aside from helping accelerate Europe with its products and services, Huawei also makes considerable contributions to the economy. According to a Huawei-commissioned report published by Oxford Economics in November 2019, Huawei contributed €12.8 billion to Europe’s GDP in 2018, sustained 169,700 jobs, and supported the generation of €5.6 billion in tax revenues.

More importantly, the fight with Huawei is only one example of how the United States aims to compete with China in the high tech arena. Even if Europe gave up its current approach of addressing reasonable security concerns by imposing strict rules but avoiding full-scale ban, more, similar demands would come from the United States on ceasing cooperation with other Chinese companies. DJI, for instance, has become the next major company to be banned from the U.S. market. Will it serve Europe’s interests to follow America’s method of banning all relevant Chinese companies?

A complete ban of Huawei, moreover, would be a symbolic action of choosing only one side between the two powers and give the United States more confidence to extend its efforts. There will be more choices for European countries and others to make as to which platform and standards to adopt—America’s or China’s? The competition will eventually result in creating two separate technology systems.

It will be the tech Cold War that no one hopes to witness or experience.