Digital sovereignty is a leitmotif in the political agenda worldwide. States around the world are making technological supremacy and innovation the cornerstones of their diplomatic, security, and economic efforts. This trend is even more true in the wake of the Ukraine war. Sanctions on Russia, impeding the import of dual-use technology, have highlighted the importance of reliable supply chains and strategic autonomy in high-tech sectors.
The challenges to achieving such sovereignty are immense as each nation depends on others to varying degrees. For instance, every country needs rare earth magnets as they are central to many key present and future technologies. However, more than 90% of rare earth magnets are produced in China.
The EU and US are no exceptions. Despite accounting for 55% of the global market for information technology, neither is independent in many areas of the technological spectrum. There is thus a clear rationale for transatlantic cooperation in the cyber and digital domains. However, is this rationale strong enough? Do differences in approach to the regulation of innovation make the EU and US competitors?
Let us look at the answer to these questions by considering each of the main dimensions of technological sovereignty.
No sovereignty without infrastructure
The achievement of digital sovereignty relies firstly on the control of digital infrastructures. In this area, the asymmetries between the US and Europe are such that cooperation is hardly likely.
Indeed, American dominance of the cloud market is clear. Currently, Amazon, Microsoft and Google jointly share 69% of the European cloud against less than 2% for the leading European players. EU’s answer to this subservience to American infrastructure was the Gaia-X project, launched precisely to build a European sovereign cloud.
The same disparity risks being replicated in other fundamental physical connectivity infrastructures: submarine cables. 99% of intercontinental electronic communications transit via them. The American GAFAMs have entered the competition for submarine cables with unprecedented strength: their share of the markets ten years ago was equal to 5%. Today, the figure is at 50%. However, as explained by Justin Sherman in his commentary, included in this dossier, submarine cables are too numerous and too globally distributed for the EU and the US to tackle these risks alone.
Europe needs the US for deep tech
In the second Trade and Technology Council (TTC) meeting held last May, European and US officials agreed to create a new sub-group dedicated to artificial intelligence risk avoidance. At the same time, they promised to set up financial instruments to help allies move away from “risky suppliers” and purchase secure and resilient communication technologies. In other words, a US-EU coalition was set up to counter China’s 5G and the unethical use of artificial intelligence applications such as face-scan technologies.
By contrast, no such attempt at transatlantic cooperation is foreseeable for semiconductors. In his commentary for this dossier, Daniel Gros points out that the European Chips Act was conceived with the pre-war idea that Europe needed to develop its own geostrategic instruments to become independent of the US. In contrast, Gros believes it would now be better to accept Europe’s dependence on the US security guarantee rather than compete with the US in the chips industry, thus avoiding the wasteful duplication of subsidies.
A long way to cybersecurity
Elsewhere in this dossier, Andrea G. Rodríguez underlines how the European Strategic Compass would have benefitted from a deeper reflection on cyberspace. Cybersecurity is only considered as an “add-on” to the strategy. In the absence of a clearly defined path for European cyber defence, transatlantic cyber cooperation may also become blurred. However, the French presidency of the Council of the European Union might be a pivotal opportunity to strengthen it. Indeed, Macron was the proponent of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a voluntary commitment to work with the international community to advance cybersecurity and preserve the open, interoperable and reliable Internet.
The US joined the Call last November: a more symbolic than effective step given the limited scope of the initiative, but significant in signalling an intention to cooperate more closely. The same attitude towards cooperation in cyber defence can be traced in the TTC announcement of expanded access to cybersecurity tools for small-and-medium-sized businesses, and in the coordinated investigations jointly led by Europol and the US Department of Justice to arrest the operators of REvil, one of the most prolific ransomware gangs.
The way ahead
As stated in the commentary by Ophélie Coelho, the TTC follows several attempts to create a transatlantic alliance on tech, from the New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA, 1995) to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, 2013). It is yet to be seen if this new attempt will succeed where its predecessors failed, and make US and EU technological regulations more compatible.
What seems clear is that the TTC could also prove helpful in consolidating the democratic front against techno-autocracies. The published joint statement of the Paris meeting was unambiguous on this point, making numerous references to export controls, dual-use technology, supply chain security, telecommunications standards and the fight against fake news, which all apply to China as much as to Russia.
Will the willingness to create global technology governance according to democratic and rules-based standards, and to counter the misuse of digital technologies by authoritarian governments become a convincing rationale for stronger transatlantic cooperation?