Digital decolonisation: The EU’s new ideas on data and artificial intelligence

The EU is proposing a process of digital decolonisation, aiming to reduce its dependency on US and Chinese firms.

In 2000 the European Union launched the non-enforceable Lisbon Strategy with the aim of becoming “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” in ten years. Two decades later, the world has changed and Europe is still struggling for technological breathing space. For example, today, the United States and China file 85 percent of patents related to artificial intelligence (AI). The EU now aims to, as the new European Commission puts it, “become a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications”.

There is an urgent need to do so. This is why the three strategic proposals the European Commission put forward last week – the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, which is subject to consultation; the more concrete European Data Strategy, which is accompanied by a series of sub-strategies and will be followed by a Data Act planned for next year; and a general communication on “Shaping Europe’s digital future” – are not only overdue but require a pressing response. It is logical to put forward these three proposals together, as most of the digital challenges and opportunities for the EU come from AI – which depends, in this stage of its evolution, on data.

These challenges are much bigger than those the EU faced in 2000. Europe has, as the Commission affirms, a “dependency on other parts of the globe for the most crucial technologies”. In practice, this is a neo-colonial dependency on US – and, increasingly, Chinese – technology companies. The EU is proposing – in practice, if not in wording – a process of digital decolonisation. In the absence of such a process, this dependency will grow with the deluge of data that comes with growing connectivity between not just people but, even more so, machines through 5G and the internet of things. If Europeans don’t take advantage of these developments, others will.

The EU’s aspirations of “technological sovereignty” may be somewhat misleading, given that Europeans live in an interdependent world and, like it or not, will continue to need US and other foreign companies to some extent. But the idea that Europeans firms, citizens, and public services should benefit from European data is appropriate, even if there will never be a European Google. The key question concerns whether Europeans, having already lost some technological races, should concentrate on the next generation of challenges and opportunities rather than the current ones.

The Commission’s proposals deal with all the right issues, albeit without including adequate responses yet.

The Commission’s proposals deal with all the right issues, albeit without including adequate responses yet. In the white paper, the Commission “supports a regulatory and investment-oriented approach” to the tech challenge. Even given its past successes such as the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU cannot become a stable superpower in technology regulation unless it also becomes a great technological power. Both the EU and the US are pushing to regulate technology as part of a campaign to confront companies that have become too powerful – quasi-independent republics or, in the case of Chinese firms, controlled by the government or the Communist Party. As such, regulation is the next stage of great power competition.

The Commission also emphasises the need for international cooperation on technology that is “open but proactive”, because Europe is too small to compete with China or other growing powers and inevitably relies on interdependence. Moreover, this is, as the Commission says, a matter of defending fundamental European values and rights.

The other key aspect of the proposals is investment. The Commission has suggested that the EU invest €20 billion from its annual budgets in AI. This seems a lot – and it is meant to have a multiplier effect by stimulating public and private investment. But, by comparison, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) invested around €24 billion in research and development in 2019, and Chinese firm Alibaba invested around €6 billion. European national and private investment will complement that from the EU. But Europe will have to make a much bigger public and private effort than the US or China if it is to begin to compare itself to its rivals by the end of the current Commission’s term, in 2025. Yet many negotiations, such as those on the future EU budget, seem to be more focused on the past than on new challenges (even if agricultural spending, which accounts for a large share of the budget, is important in relation to the European Green Deal).

A truly European approach cannot be limited to Franco-German cooperation, particularly after Brexit. Therefore, the Commission supports 70 joint actions for “closer and more efficient cooperation between Member States” in key areas, proposing a novel system of governance such as a “framework for cooperation of national competent authorities” on AI. And it puts forward other governance innovations, such as that for a “data cloud federation” in the EU and common European data spaces in strategically important sectors.

Members of the EU must overcome their national approaches to the digital sphere in favour of a truly European one. They should also respond to digital challenges with a European frame of mind, as the danger of what the Commission calls “fragmentation between Member States” is real. But, as was not the case with the Lisbon Strategy (hence its failure), the Commission should introduce some compulsory benchmarks and goals to guarantee that this time really is different. Much has changed in the world since 2000. And the EU will need to change in the next few, demanding years if it is to strengthen its digital independence from very competitive powers.

Andrés Ortega is a council member of ECFR and a senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, in Spain.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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