Digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy are phrases that are used almost daily in EU policy circles, loosely framed around the EU’s ability to carve out its own future in the digital sphere, rather than having its terms dictated from abroad. To achieve digital sovereignty in practice, having access to as broad a range of suppliers is key, not unnecessarily restricting the market.
Our ability to self-determine Europe’s digital future is at risk when we become reliant on one source, that much is clear, and has been demonstrated recently in the global supply shortage of microchips. All measures that reduce this dependency will benefit digital sovereignty, which in practice means expanding competition in the market to as many players as possible.
The means to get there are varied, and Europe is rightly seeking to build infrastructure, expand the pool of skilled experts and facilitate market entry. The EU and member states are also putting in place measures to eliminate obvious security risks in supply chains that demand an extra layer of vigilance, such as critical infrastructure, which is in the interest of national security.
But the notion that homegrown European solutions are automatically better than non-European ones – sometimes backed by measures that give European vendors and suppliers undue advantage, or which place additional hurdles for companies that handle customer data outside the EU – is misguided.
In the cybersecurity domain, in particular, limiting interoperability and vendor choice will only reduce Europe’s resilience against cyberattacks, which is a crucial element to ensuring Europe’s digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy. This is as true now as it always has been, in a sector innovating at break neck speed to meet the challenges set by our adversaries.
In this competitive market, best-in-class providers at the cutting edge of security are the ones that will make Europe more cyber-secure, irrespective of where they happen to have their headquarters or data centers. Irrational decisions guided by protectionism should have no place in this debate. Indeed policies or practices requiring forced data localisation can often limit the benefits generated by scale and global reach, and negatively impact cyber security’s operational effectiveness.
A recent seminar organised by ECIS, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, set out some clear principles that should guide Europe’s quest for digital sovereignty. Ensuring that the market operates as effectively as possible, supplier choice is as broad as possible, and interoperability and ability to switch suppliers is safeguarded, on the basis of clear standards, will be paramount.
That is not to say that all measures being considered are misguided. An industrial policy that improves Europe’s digital infrastructures will boost Europe’s supply of home-grown digital services and products. Countries also have legitimate reasons to safeguard their national security and are well within their rights to set criteria to this end. The real danger lies in confusing protectionism with digital sovereignty.