The European Union has been busy. It has just unveiled the world’s first plans to regulate artificial intelligence, an effort that has received a lot of attention at home and abroad. There is also the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, the Digital Decade, the Cybersecurity Strategy, and more. Clearly, the EU is doubling down on its self-declared role as regulatory superpower, first established with the GDPR data privacy regulation.
Technology regulation is important – and probably more so than many Europeans realise. But the EU, for all its pathbreaking work on regulation, does not appear to have fully registered how geopolitical technology has become. Even more striking, while there has been some movement on this in Brussels, most EU member states have barely begun thinking about the issue.
Technology is not neutral, geopolitically speaking
Throughout history, technology has not only transformed economies and societies: it has been a major redistributor of power among states and a major force shaping and reshaping international relations. Technologies can create economic advantages that boost a country’s global economic influence. It can enable new military capabilities and give a country military advantages or even dominance. And tech products are shaped by whoever manufactures them, and builds their values and standards into them.
Brussels and most member state capitals remain primarily focused on the economic, social, and labour implications of technology – almost as if they believe that, by ignoring tech geopolitics, they can escape it altogether. Take artificial intelligence: 21 EU member states have now published AI policy documents in which they identify areas of focus and develop policy recommendations. With few exceptions – such as France – most EU countries do not engage with the challenges posed by the way that the development and use of AI might affect the international balance of power. They have kept their focus strictly on economic and domestic challenges.
We will need to change our mindset when it comes to technology. European countries and their partners risk becoming playgrounds of technological competition between great powers, which attempt to coerce them into joining a bloc. Countries could become economically dependent on others for key technologies, leaving them unable to influence standards in a way that corresponds with their values and even subject to direct foreign interference.
The EU puts too little thought into the way in which its internal actions – or lack thereof – influence its geopolitical power, since this is a metric that rarely comes up in any European discussions. For others, AI means power: the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence defines its own role as being to “prescribe actions to ensure the United States wins the AI competition and sets the foundation to win the broader technology competition”. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously declared that, whoever becomes the leader in AI, “will become the ruler of the world”.
But the EU, and most Europeans, do not think in these terms. This is partly due to issues of competency, but even more to the way the EU sees itself: despite much rhetoric about a “geopolitical union” – and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy’s insistence that the EU has to “learn to use the language of power” – Brussels remains largely uncomfortable with power politics. The EU’s ethos is that of a market-driven, technocratically led entity that, from the start, has left ‘high politics’ (security and defence) in the hands of member states. This means that the European Commission sees the world in terms not of power, coercion, or relative gain but as a game of market regulation. Most member states are no different: on technology, few of them have picked up the geopolitical baton. It is possible to see this as one of the many civilisational advances of the EU, but the fact remains that, while Europe might not be interested in geopolitics, geopolitics is interested in Europe.
Two types of vulnerabilities
For the EU and its partners, there are two types of vulnerabilities created by battles over technology: the creation of dependencies and vulnerability to foreign interference.
Dependencies result from particular states leading on – or having a monopoly over – some technologies. Such dominance can empower a state to give or withhold technologies from others, to pressure them to do its bidding, or to use these dependencies to force others to align or otherwise change its foreign policy. Members of the EU need to be wary of technological dependence on non-EU providers, particularly non-democratic states – or else they will become digital colonies of others. The prime example of this in the recent past is the discussion over 5G and its Chinese providers. If Europe loses ground on technologies, it could also lead to European partners finding themselves dependent on other actors, as others fill the gap left by Europeans.
Technologies can also create direct ways for states to interfere with others. This is the case with disinformation or the use of new tech in military applications The EU will need to protect itself against such interference – but should also keep in mind that it may be able to use some of these tools itself.
What to do?
In contrast to other great powers, whose tech offers are often based on coercion and the exploitation of weakness, the EU should stand for a principled approach based on partnerships, mutual interests, consent, and solidarity. In addition, the EU should continue scanning its internal market for vulnerabilities in critical technological sectors, identifying high-risk vendors, and ensuring reciprocity in market access to these technologies for countries that restrict or curtail digital trade.
Most importantly, Brussels needs to bring the national capitals on board. If the EU moves forward on technology issues without the support of its member states, it risks losing credibility and the capability to influence others. Worse, it could leave empty spaces in Europe that external actors fill. But, if the EU and its member states work closely together on technology issues, the bloc will be strengthened – and will lead by showing that its rules and regulations, such as those on privacy or trustworthy AI, work at home.
It is crucial for Europe to recognise and consider the international second- and third-order effects of any actions it takes in the technological space. It needs to acknowledge that these actions have an impact on its geopolitical power. They influence the EU’s soft power as a role model, its positioning relative to other major players’ plans, and its geopolitical room for manoeuvre.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.