Europe must acquire technological sovereignty

(B2) Technological sovereignty is one of the key concepts in the programme of the new European Commission. A vague concept, certainly. However, it has the merit of being both ambitious and rather consensual. Above all, it is in line with the new technological and geopolitical realities. Its implementation will be crucial for the security of Europe

(credit : European Commission/Cristof Echard)

This is the point of view defended by Burkard Schmitt, an expert in the field, Defence & Security Director at ASD, the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe

Technology is geopolitics

We live in a changing world. Geopolitical changes, with the emergence of China as a new world power, on the one hand. The questioning of relations between Europe and the United States, on the other. Technological changes too, with the next digital revolution and the appearance of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, etc. These two levels are closely linked, as the discussion on 5G shows. “Technology is geopolitics” as Julian King, the former European Commissioner in charge of the Security Union, said.

A change of paradigm

This reflection is expressed through the idea of ​​technological sovereignty, which has made an appearance with the arrival of the new European Commission. This concept represents a real paradigm shift and will be key to ensuring the security of the European Union and its citizens.

Of course, the term remains generic. However, it does express two fundamental aspects. First, new digital technologies are of strategic importance because they will determine not only the prosperity but also the security of our continent. Second, the 21st century will be digital in all its aspects, including areas of sovereignty such as defence, security and space. This importance of digital technology, and its link with defence and space, is also reflected in the portfolio of the new Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton.

Stop to technological dependance

According to Thierry Breton, technological sovereignty is not a protectionist concept. It is the desire not to depend entirely on non-European sources for strategic technologies. For the technologies that determine the geopolitical position of Europe, we should also have European suppliers.

The expression of such a will at European level marks a considerable political change. Until now, technological dependence was rather a non-subject for most of our Member States, but also for the European institutions:

  • In the civil sector, market opening was the basic and non-controversial principle, including in the research and hi-tech sectors ;
  • In the defence sector, the dependence on the United States was rather comfortable, until the uncertainties created by the Trump administration ; 
  • In the security sector, technology was considered as a negligible quantity. No capability or technological culture has developed. Purchases were made anywhere to meet immediate needs, with the lowest price as its only criteria.

A silent break

The term ‘technological sovereignty’ marks a break in comparison with this European laxity. The fact that it still is being used today in the European speech is quite remarkable. It shows that a new sensitivity in Europe and in Brussels.

A world where everything becomes digital

Second important aspect: The term ‘technological sovereignty’ first applies to the new generation of digital technologies which come from the civil sector. The strategic importance of these technologies results not only from their application to defence or space (classic domain of sovereignty), but also from their omnipresence in our societies. In a world where everything becomes digital, it is the one who controls data and networks who controls our lives, our infrastructure, our businesses and our institutions.

In other words: the stakes of sovereignty are increasing, and our vulnerabilities too. Mastering new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud and quantum computing, or even 5G and its components, is not only an economic question but also, and mainly, a strategic one.

An industrial security strategy to reinforce the technological base

Targeting the investments

In the face of the mega-investments of the American and Chinese superpowers, Europe cannot afford to embark on an all-out technological race. It must target its investments well and think about where to put its resources.

To achieve this, a systematic analysis of the security dimension of technologies would have to be carried out, including in policies that seem a priori irrelevant to security, such as the Green Deal or Digital Europe. We must avoid repeating the 5G experiment, where one realises only right before the deployment of the technology that there may be a security problem. At the same time, priority should be given to the application of these technologies to particularly sensitive areas, namely defence, security and space.

Integrating the technological ambition in the industrial policy

Last but not least, it is necessary to integrate the technological ambition into a real industrial security policy. In theory, the Union has all the means at its disposal for such a policy: It has relevant agencies and programs, but it rarely uses them as instruments to support the industrial and technological security base in Europe.

Financing research is not enough. All relevant tools should be mobilised and orchestrated by a global and ambitious strategy, which would support the entire ecosystem and cover the entire industrial cycle. The elements exist or are in preparation. It’s time to add consistency and put them at the service of the idea of ​​technological sovereignty.

Burkard Schmitt, Defence & Security Director at ASD (AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe)

The author expresses his own points of view here. Headings and subheadings are from the editorial staff.

Rédaction de B2

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