Upstaged: Europe’s struggles to play the great tech game

This year’s Munich Security Conference showed once again that just two players will fight the global battle over tech. And guess who’s missing.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And, sometimes, panel compositions are more revealing than what anyone says on them. Such was the case at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) this year with regard to Europe’s role in new technologies.

Technology was a big topic at MSC 2020, with several panels and town-hall meetings on artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, and the “post-Westphalian digital world”. But the nature of the topic had fundamentally changed from just two years ago, when tech was also high on the agenda. At MSC 2018, the debate about technology was primarily that – a debate about technology. How would AI change humanity? What were the threats to international security? Sophia the Robot made an appearance; the attendees discussed autonomous weapon systems. In 2020, however, the debate about technology wasn’t about technology. It was all about power. Few in Munich focused on the world one could create with a 5G-enabled internet of things, or on the impact of AI on future conflicts. The predominant question was: “who will control the tech?”

Judging from the composition of panels at Munich, it won’t be the Europeans. Over the weekend, the narrative was formed (or rather cemented) that the battle over tech will be fought by just two actors: the United States and China. No room for other players. No room for Europe.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the main stage. The discussion about the post-Westphalian digital world took place between Microsoft’s Brad Smith and American geopolitical commentator Ian Bremmer. And the debate on AI involved the head of the US National Security Commission on AI, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Chinese Ambassador Fu Ying. The moderator, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, worked hard to introduce European views into the debate, but couldn’t dispel the sense that Europe was looking on from the sidelines. At least there was one main stage event that saw Smith face off with the new EU commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton. Their debate about “Corporate Responsibility to Protect: The Politics of Big Data” was moderated by Marietje Schaake, a highly knowledgeable former European MEP and the president of the CyberPeace Institute.

Many in Europe are putting a lot of faith – maybe too much – in Europe’s regulatory power.

But this is the role that Europe seems to have slipped into on this topic – that of a moderator; a warning voice in the background that helps mitigate the biggest excesses of the tech giants. It is not the role of a shaper or a leader. And it is not a narrative that anyone in Europe should welcome.

There is no point in blaming others – Europeans are highly complicit in forming this narrative. There are several effects at play.

Firstly, the US is engaged in national solipsism, with only one other actor – China, which has been very good at playing up its capabilities – getting any airtime. Europeans, in contrast, “like to tell [themselves] how much behind they are”, as one European participant in a recent ECFR workshop on AI noted. Concerns about European technological capabilities are not completely unfounded, as Europe lacks champions such as Google or Amazon, but it appears that Europeans are only too willing to believe that even the bronze medal is beyond them.

Secondly, many in Europe are putting a lot of faith – maybe too much – in Europe’s regulatory power: the so-called “Brussels effect”. They see this as the main way for Europe to shape the development of AI and other technologies. But it is unclear whether the “Brussels effect”, which has pushed others to follow EU standards on manufactured goods, will work as well in the digital world.

Importantly, Europe needs to focus on development as well as regulation. Various European countries are working hard to strengthen their AI capabilities, by increasing investment and incentivising start-ups. And there have been complementary efforts at the EU level, such as a recently published AI white paper – designed to build up an AI “ecosystem of excellence and trust” – a push to build a single market for data, and the European Commission’s declaration of its aim to become “geopolitical”. One analysis of the white paper comments that, in the document, “the Commission takes up a rule setting role (rather than a referee role)”.

It is questionable whether this will be enough. Europeans have a lot of work to do. If MSC 2021 doesn’t entertain a narrative about Europe regaining its ability to debate technology issues on the big stage with the US and China, Europeans should begin to worry about their ability to protect both their geopolitical independence and their economic prosperity in the digital battles to come.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.