Technological vulnerabilities that threaten the European Union’s ‘Open Strategic Autonomy’ and the EU’s response

Alice Pannier profileAccording to expert Dr Alice Pannier, ‘Strategic Autonomy’ is also referred to as ‘sovereignty’, but it’s ‘open’ in order to not undermine the openness of the EU economy: “If the EU has technological sovereignty, it will be able to act autonomously on the international stage rather than have to rely on foreign suppliers and potentially be subject to pressure, coercion or lack of access.” She talks about current technological challenges in a geopolitical context and how the EU can respond to them.

Alice Pannier heads the Geopolitics of Technology program at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) in Paris. The program was launched in 2020 to respond to international issues related to technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, cybersecurity, robotics and semiconductors.

We interviewed her ahead of the workshop organised by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on the future of the EU’s Open Strategic Autonomy: cooperating multilaterally wherever we can, acting autonomously wherever we must. At this event, on 7 March 2023 in the European Parliament, panellists will discuss the EU’s main strategic vulnerabilities, including digital technologies, and the most effective ways to address them.

You are researching the geopolitics of technology. How did this Geopolitics of Technology program come about?

Alice Pannier: The program was launched in October 2020 because of growing interest from French companies and policy makers to understand how global politics can affect business operations, particularly in light of COVID-19-disrupted supply chains and growing US-China tensions.

The program covers a broad range of technologies, including emerging technologies, and aims to provide a European stance on technological sovereignty and managing international relations taking technology into account.

We analyse global technology trends, transatlantic relations, the effects of the US-China technology competition on Europe, the technology policies of different countries (see Ifri’s latest study ‘The Technology Policies of Digital Middle Powers’, European strategic autonomy and sovereignty, and the future of international science and technology partnerships. We also publish studies on how technology is transforming society and its role in the green transition.

What is meant by ‘Open Strategic Autonomy’?

Alice Pannier: Open strategic autonomy refers to how the EU is trying to find a balance between maintaining open trade, and freedom of action to chart its own course in line with its interests and values in various sectors.

In technology, it covers many aspects of policy making, from producing and owning technology by supporting investment in R&D in strategic sectors, to ensuring partners have sound and secure supply chains, to enforcing data protection and maintaining diplomatic autonomy.

‘Strategic Autonomy’ is sometimes referred to as ‘sovereignty’. If the EU has technological sovereignty, it will be able to act autonomously on the international stage rather than have to rely on foreign suppliers and potentially be subject to pressure, coercion or lack of access.

What are the main technological vulnerabilities that threaten the EU’s strategic autonomy?

Alice Pannier: There are different kinds of vulnerability depending on the aspect of autonomy that we are speaking about and different ways to tackle them.

To achieve data autonomy, for example, the EU has to be able to impose certain rules onto companies that manage or process data. The EU’s reliance on large cloud service providers based in the US is a known vulnerability, we need to come up with agreements that ensure full compliance with EU data protection law. Chinese practices in that realm are also a growing concern, as we see with TikTok.

Another threat to the EU’s strategic autonomy is our dependency on components and raw materials required to build the technology we rely on that come from countries such as China and Russia, which have different values and coercive practices. In this case, autonomy means looking for alternatives and reorganising our supply chains to make them more secure.

In the long term, European leaders are mindful of not creating new dependencies that could hinder making advances in (and using) emerging technologies, such as semiconductors, nanomaterials and AI.

Through academic and company R&D and the EU’s reindustrialisation strategy we should be creating technological ecosystems that boost or scale up innovation within the EU and reduce our dependency on foreign suppliers.

What are some of the challenges when responding to vulnerabilities that threaten the EU’s strategic autonomy?

Alice Pannier: In the last three years the EU has done a lot of work to identify the risks that stem from these vulnerabilities and develop policy tools that address most of the issues. One of the difficulties is that achieving strategic autonomy involves a large number of actors at the State and EU level, which makes it hard to come up with a unified strategy.

There are also different policy positions between Member States that can lead to points of vulnerability in certain parts of the EU. For example, the screening mechanism for foreign direct investments within the EU is applied more thoroughly in some States than others.

Implementing the Commission’s vision of open strategic autonomy requires thinking more in terms of European interests and less in national-level interests.

More could be done to embed technology in the EU’s foreign policy. The US for example is being very successful at leading ‘technology alliances’ to group countries around its views and interests. However, the EU’s positions on technological norms and on the economic rise of China are less divisive, and in many cases more attractive, than the US’. This has led to many successful bilateral partnerships, but the EU is not yet leading multilateral initiatives like the US is.

Could the response to these vulnerabilities have a negative impact on the EU’s digital and green transition?

Alice Pannier: On the contrary, the goal reducing our dependencies on other countries, like Russian gas for example, securing access to strategic materials and shortening supply chains encourages the EU’s digital and green transition. In turn, investment in digital and green technologies will make the EU more resilient.

The EU’s digital and green transition are happening hand in hand, as most digital innovations make technology more efficient. Investing in research can also help achieve innovations in new materials, energy and climate monitoring. Moreover, companies around the world are leveraging digital technology to drive sustainability initiatives.

To watch the recording of this STOA event, please click here

  1. I realise space was limited but I find the final answer unconvincing and incoherent. Replacing Russian gas with renewables is something we need to do anyway because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and because shifting from gas to renewables itself is the green transition – it’s a circular argument. For the rest, the question is *how exactly* does reducing our dependencies, securing access to strategic materials and shortening supply chains (I feel the need to place inverted commas around all those concepts) have a positive impact on the green transition? Rather, isn’t it just the latest tactic to delay and slow down the transition, at the expense of households and businesses and for the benefit of a small number of industrial players and their lobbyists? Sure, let’s transition but first we need the factories. Sure, we need the factories but first we need the mines. Sure we need the mines but we also need geographical balance. Sure we need geographical balance but then we need to tear up environmental protections. And so on and on, as the planet burns, instead of just ramping up deployment as the science tell us we need to. As for “most digital innovations make technology more efficient”, that is also a very debatable and very partial statement but I would need a whole other comment… By the way, these points are not directed at this interview in particular but at the strategic autonomy (I need those inverted commas again) discussion in general.


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