A debate between our colleagues Verena Bitter and Raphael Weißbach

European digital sovereignty is the self-declared goal of the EU Commission as well as EU member states. The German government pursued this concept with vigour during its Council Presidency. Over the next few years, numerous legislative and technological initiatives will follow at both European and national level to underpin this claim. The most recent examples are the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the Gaia X cloud project. It is time to take a closer look at the idea of digital sovereignty from a public affairs perspective and to learn about various points of view on the matter.
  • What does digital sovereignty mean?

Raphael: For a long time, the German government’s understanding of digital sovereignty seemed based on developing its own technology options and therewith achieving digital autarky. Now, European values and open standards are increasingly emphasized. Another definition of digital sovereignty is rooted in the distinction of the EU from other parts of the world. Namely, the U.S. on one side and China on the other. This supposedly-sovereign European way finds its particular expression in the EU’s AI and data policy as well as in platform regulation.

Verena: In my view, digital sovereignty does not mean to become completely independent, but rather to be able to make self-determined decisions about dependencies in the digital space. I would disagree that the political stakeholders in Berlin and Brussels are envisaging the goal of digital autarky. This is an exaggeration, often made by opponents of the concept. Digital sovereignty means, on the one hand, that there must be alternatives to the few dominant tech corporations, on whose infrastructure and services companies and users are dependent in many ways. This must also mean that users in Europe can make a conscious decision about the conditions under which they enter into dependencies, e.g., about what happens to their data. Finally, it includes citizens’ ability to use digital technologies with awareness of its possible risks and consequences. This is a question of gaining digital competences.

  • Is digital sovereignty a sustainable European vision or just utopia?

Raphael: Definitely, utopia. In my opinion, achieving digital sovereignty in areas where the EU is far behind is wishful thinking! The EU cannot even agree on what digital sovereignty means. If sovereignty means protectionism, this idea clearly contradicts the European ideal of free trade and open borders – although there is also protectionism in European agricultural policy. For me, the debate is primarily a diversionary tactic designed to hide the fact that in the past, policymakers at the German and European level lacked the determination to consistently drive forward digitisation. This seems to be slowly changing.

Verena: With digital sovereignty, Europe is finally finding its vision of what role it wants to play in the future in terms of digital policy. Of course, it is unrealistic that we as Europeans will soon be living in a world without Google, Amazon and Facebook, or that there will be equivalent European alternatives. But one can definitely minimize the dependence on these players. It is true: Politicians and also European companies have missed opportunities here, but where possible, we are catching up. On other issues, the political stakeholders in Brussels, together with the member states, need to enforce European values in regulatory terms. In my opinion, content regulation through the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) and Digital Services Act (DSA) will only be the beginning. Further steps will follow to ensure that dominant platforms can no longer decide the rules of the game themselves.

  • How significant is digital sovereignty to different industries and companies in Europe?

Verena: The big winners of digital sovereignty are, first of all, European manufacturers and companies. All of a sudden, interest in “tech made in Europe” is growing again. But we should not romanticise it. There are good reasons why hardly anyone buys a Nokia cell phone anymore. In addition, our domestic companies are also dependent on progress, such as the expansion of 5G. To make this possible without Huawei, we must continue to invest in European companies and technological innovation.

Raphael: But we should differentiate here! Digital sovereignty does not affect hardware and software manufacturers equally. While European hardware manufacturers often rely on many preliminary products outside the EU, software companies cannot find enough qualified workers in Germany or the EU. The European Commission and Council will likely focus on where the products/ideas are developed, and which jurisdiction companies are subject to. European software companies in particular still have to solve other challenges: data availability, for example, is a problem in many areas. Linked to this are questions of data protection, data localisation and data transfer. Here, the EU has already taken important steps with the General Data Protection Regulation, Free Flow of Data Regulation and Data Governance Act. The Digital internal market is also supposed to include the free flow of data within the EU – but it is still not complete.

  • Will European digital sovereignty have a lasting negative impact on relations with our trading partners, especially China and the U.S.?

Raphael: Yes, Europe’s digital sovereignty can have a dangerous impact on diplomatic relations. The Huawei case is the best example of the increasing geo-politicisation of tech policy; TikTok is another one. The EU would be well-advised not to start a trade war with either China or the U.S. and resort to protectionist means – as China and the U.S. have done. President Biden will not be an easy interlocutor on this issue either. Only the tone will change. Instead of always emphasising digital or technological sovereignty, the EU and Germany should disarm rhetorically. After all, in the long run, the EU will still be dependent on both partners.

Verena: Europe is caught between two fronts in the trade war: the US and China. Digital sovereignty is only a natural reaction to the politics in Washington and Beijing. The fact that an already difficult situation will not be made easier by a strong reaction cannot serve as an excuse for paralysis. For Europe, the integrity of the internal market is crucial. Therefore, we must agree on common standards and defend them against other countries. It might not be the most diplomatic thing to do, but it is the right one.

  • What does digital sovereignty mean for corporate public affairs and political communication?

Verena: European digital companies have an advantage in the debate, which they should use in terms of communication. However, this must be accompanied by concrete projects, meaning the companies should play their part for advancing sovereignty. American and especially Chinese companies must now communicate even more diplomatically with German and European policymakers and develop a coherent communications concept to avert damage from growing scepticism towards non-European technology.

Raphael: Implications regarding digital sovereignty differ for each company – these differences should be reflected in communication. Essentially, companies should be guided by whether they are 1) a non-European company; American or Chinese companies are a special case; 2) they are a large European company; e. g. what is often referred to as a “European Champion” or 3) they are an emerging European start-up or a small or medium-sized company, a so-called “Hidden Champion”. They should decide whether “digital Sovereignty” is communicated proactively or reactively, depending on their own PA and communication structures, interconnectedness with European and non-European sales markets, and investor structure. Last but not least, the corporate culture also plays an important role and the question of the extent to which the company’s own business model can be affected by or benefit from digital sovereignty.

Picture: https://pixabay.com/de/illustrations/bipr-datenschutz-europa-eu-behörde-3518254/