Technological sovereignty: from the hype to the real questions

29 Sep 2020 | Viewpoint

Viewpoint: Before unleashing technology sovereignty initiatives, the EU needs to define what the concept means

Peter Tindemans

Peter Tindemans, former secretary general of EuroScience.

When the Chinese philosopher Confucius was asked what he would do if appointed ruler, the reply was he would first “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. That, he thought, was the basis for logical thinking and sound politics.

This reads across perfectly to the current debate on technology sovereignty.

In the first place, the tendency to equate technology sovereignty with “Europe First” should be quashed. Europe should not mimic a US president in rhetoric that is at odds with current economic reality. Our world is globalised and we all benefit from comparative advantages: we import goods from countries that are able to produce them more cheaply than we do.

But even if no longer equated with “Europe first”, the definition of technology sovereignty remains unclear.

Take the example of Thomas Rachel, German Parliamentary Secretary of State of the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research during the very interesting Science|Business virtual workshop on 8 September. Describing the plans of the current German Council presidency, he first said the upcoming Horizon Europe research programme is all about technology sovereignty. Rachel then muddied the waters more by saying the next steps taken would be at the Council of Ministers meeting in October, which will adopt a document the revive the elusive concept of the European Research Area. (The elephant in the room has been from the beginning the attempt to coordinate national R&D efforts).

So what does technology sovereignty realistically mean? It surely cannot be creating monopolies – EU law forbids that. Nor with Europe having little chance of self-sufficiency, can it be autarky. And in a globalized world, it cannot be about total control.

To bring about technology sovereignty, there must be a more precise definition. Recent EU history could be helpful in framing it. Let’s go back to two instances which might look superficially similar. In the early 1980s European Commissioner Etienne Davignon launched ESPRIT (European Strategic Programme on Research in Information Technology). But its goal was limited: make European micro-electronics industry competitive against US and Japanese companies.

In addition to throwing money at it, Davignon devised a specific tool, pre-competitive research, to make it possible for companies to collaborate in R&D. It was a success, not least because only very few companies were involved. In 1984 this led onto the first Framework research programmes, designed not on the basis of technology sovereignty arguments, but to accommodate a desire for a larger role for the then European Economic Community in R&D, and to simplify political decision making between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

Similarly, when the EUREKA programme of publicly funded international research was launched in 1985, it was not in a search for technological sovereignty, but as a response to US president Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars strategic defence initiative. The programme’s aim of developing a system to protect the US from intercontinental ballistic missiles involved huge investment in basic research in fields including high energy physics, supercomputing and advanced materials, and this was seen as leaving Europe at a disadvantage in strategically important areas.

TechSov objectives

So it might be better to avoid technological sovereignty as an overarching concept and instead define more specific objectives. I would propose that for a continental bloc such as the EU these should include: access to all key technologies; having leadership or at least being an equal and unavoidable partner in some of them; and being able to regulate firms that have, or threaten to have, a monopoly position in exploiting these technologies.

This is of course not sovereignty that sovereign governments exercise when deciding autonomously what they think they should do for their citizens. Incidentally, even that is mostly an illusion, as the UK is going to discover.

Much more practical and specific questions have to be asked in order to get to grips with the concept of technology sovereignty and what policies should be pursued. Here are in my view of few key ones.

There are economic sectors in which a single country (whether China or the US) could ban its companies from exporting goods to Europe, thus causing a major problem for Europe. Supercomputers might be an example, but also raw materials, for example for drugs, where we rely on India and China. The reaction might be a legal one, for example through the World Trade Organisation.

But Europe could also consider creating its own competitor companies; Airbus has shown the way. In other sectors Europe does not want to rely on suppliers from countries that for good reasons would be considered to pose security risks. Whatever the merits of the case, the discussion around Huawei is certainly a valid one. Once more, legal action, as well as providing incentives to European contenders, would be how to deal with this.

Of course, one should not confuse this with the threat of the major technology companies such as Apple, Facebook, etc. That threat is real, but different, because these companies need European customers. Here privacy regulations, tax decisions, anti-monopoly regulations, are the way to go.

As a sort of counterpoint, how can the EU stop countries blocking exports of its technologies and products to the rest of the world, preventing the EU from exploiting its technological prowess in certain areas? As one case in point, at the end of 2019, the US government leant heavily on the Dutch government not to grant China export licenses to ASML, the world market leader in the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing machines. The EU has to develop practical ways of demonstrating and applying its geopolitical power.

A different, but also highly relevant question, is to ask in which current and future economic growth sectors Europe wants to have significant share of the value generated throughout the value chain? It is the value chain that counts because it might concern end products or supplies. Pharma, health technology (where Europe has with Philips and Siemens two of the world leaders), green technologies (including renewable energy technologies, maybe even nuclear fission and fusion energy), transport, AI or computers, would probably be good examples where Europe, working jointly with member states and the EU, should be sufficiently attractive for companies to operate and grow to sufficient scale. 

Perhaps the newly minted European Innovation Council could play a useful role in identifying such sectors. Of course, Europe should then also make sure that the underlying technologies are mastered.

This leads to the last question Europe has to systematically address. What conditions are essential for companies to deal with the challenges mentioned above? A strong knowledge base (which is not the major problem in Europe), promotion of entrepreneurship, stimuli for companies to grow, effective but conducive regulations, will surely figure prominently among the answers to this question.

This is well-known territory for both national governments and the EU. It just requires a sense of urgency. But that is not immediately evident from the recent agreement of the European Council to cut research funding in the 2021 – 2027 multiannual financial framework.

Peter Tindemans is former secretary general of EuroScience

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