A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of digital sovereignty. As a result of the 2013 revelation of massive U.S.-driven data surveillance, both European policy-makers and stakeholders from EU member states have urged action to strengthen data security and data protection with a view to improving European or even national self-determination as it refers to the digital sphere. As this process has been ongoing, the word digital sovereignty has spread in both the political and economic spheres, and has occasionally achieved some prominence. Several governments and companies have not hesitated to call for a re-nationalisation of the digital.
In 2014, a paper published by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) together with the Open Technology Institute and the New America Foundation – remarkably funded “with the assistance of the European Union” – assessed a significant number of measures aiming at safeguarding Europe’s digital sovereignty. Asking whether Europe is missing the point when striving for “technological sovereignty”, the authors eventually concluded that the proposals, ranging from localised routing to IT security brands, mostly would not meet their aims and even would threaten the open internet. The situation back then was prompted by massive pressure on EU officials caused by public disillusion and outrage. Realising the fact that Europeans were obviously exposed to the digital supremacy of foreign powers forced European decision-makers into a corner where they had to affirm Europe’s capacity to act in a self-determined way; Europe was in a state where technology faced a political rationale. And even after the dust settled, the term digital sovereignty still stimulated the discourse. But it had changed. The discourse has shown that there is more to digital sovereignty than localised routing, national e-mailing or restrictions for public tenders. The term has evolved and broadened its scope.
Sovereignty = Protectionism?
Reviewing past developments, globalisation, Europeanisation and digitalisation have blurred the lines between states as well as national and supranational institutions. In the process, they have changed the way we think about physical borders. Europeanisation has called the term sovereignty into question, while nation states have questioned the process of Europeanisation. Digitalisation in these matters is the embodiment of blurring lines per se: on- and off-line merge, the internet is objectified, industry and society are translated into bits.
Digitalisation certainly increases the pressure on European economies whose incumbents are world leaders in traditional, analogue industries: automotive, manufacturing, engineering, pharmacy. The challenge to keep up with global competition accelerates as market entrants from the IT sector set trends by establishing new digital business models that demand digital transformation. Data processing, as a skill to develop new business models and societal solutions, has to be integrated in our thinking. Therefore, Europe’s economy and society has to be aware of the characteristics of this new resource. However, the fear that results from this development – reaching beyond the fear from being a victim of surveillance – has given birth to a phrase that is likewise haunting European debates: Europe must not become a workbench for U.S. or Asian innovators. But, digital protectionism cannot be an answer to these fears either. Rejecting the challenge of moving to the new would waste the potential digital sovereignty is able to unleash. Protecting the status quo while thereby promoting outdated business models instead of promoting innovation will do little to foster sustainable economic growth in Europe. What should a legitimate concept of digital sovereignty look like then?
Making Europe digitally competitive
It is clear that regulation is a crucial point when thinking about sovereignty in the digital world. Almost 30 years ago, liberalisation in the telecommunications sector started to get rid of borders, exclusive rights, monopolies and protectionism with the aim of promoting the competitiveness of European companies. Why take a step backwards instead of recalling the values that once targeted welfare and growth through embracing competitiveness? The goal to establish a European IT hub and to transform traditional industries into digital champions lags behind reality. At the same time, Europe already is a hub for innovative information and communications technology (ICT) as the Global Information Technology Report 2015 emphasises: Finland (2nd), Sweden (3rd), the Netherlands (4th) and the UK (8th) lead the field in ICT readiness. Combining these facts with Europe’s capacity to harmonise a market of 500 million users is one of the biggest advances in this field when it comes to promoting economies of scale. The General Data Protection Regulation, the Directive on security of network and information systems and the Digital Single Market strategy as such are already moving in this direction.
In order to gain digital sovereignty, it is important to make Europe competitive in a global digital market and not to make the digital market European. Europe cannot create a second Silicon Valley or a European Google; but it can seize the opportunity of a diverse ecosystem, within which new undertakings can grow and established industries can open up to the existing European and even global ICT environment. Therefore, a harmonised digital single market that promotes innovation and fosters legal certainty for all participants is just a first step in encouraging this environment to become a digitally sovereign – that is, a confident and competitive – digital economy in Europe. Europe’s economy has nothing to lose but its chance to shape digitalisation.