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4th Feb 2023

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How does 'Digital Strategic Autonomy' really work?

  • With the Digital Services Act the Digital Market Act, the Data Governance Act and Data Act, European institutions have taken significant steps toward the way European companies store, use, and process data and deal with privacy (Photo: Leonardo Rizzi)
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Strategic autonomy today is no longer just about security. Many domains are now thought of to be 'strategic': economy and industry, manufacturing and critical infrastructure, sustainability, energy security and the electricity revolution, plus also, of course, security and defence.

But the real game for the future is undoubtedly now being played out in the field of new technologies and, even more so, the digitalisation of societies.

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Although it is now clear that autonomy cannot mean protectionism, in times of crisis, it might mean 'pragmatism'. In this context, a solid and adaptable industrial base is essential to ensure the capacity to act with autonomy.

On the one hand, finding like-minded partners is now more necessary than ever. On the other hand, member states and the EU must create a dialogue with strategic and even systemic rivals. As the world itself functions on interdependencies, openness will secure the goals and needs of a digital, sustainable, and future-proof European transition.

Yet rebalancing the nature of such relations towards an assertive stance may be necessary in the long-term strategy — ensuring that no compromises in terms of core values will be ever accepted.

Critical technologies must be considered instruments of digital strategic autonomy.

Microchips, together with new telecommunication technologies such as 5G and 6G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and cybersecurity tools, as well as electronic and digital ID, are only a few of the key enablers within the different segments of this digital transition.

Shortages in the supply chain and know-how in these domains (as experienced during the pandemic) have underlined how diversification and even rethinking of strategic prerogatives must be at the centre of the EU's political agendas.

Therefore, finding the right partners to cooperate with is a significant part of a prosperous strategic Europe. Partners are defined as like-minded, market-oriented democracies towards which openness is essential.

Transatlantic cooperation with both Americas, meaningful relations for trade and investment with democracies in Africa, as well as a close cooperation with countries like Taiwan or Japan must be fostered.

Meat on the bone

Trade and technology councils, and digital diplomacy sound good, but they miss meat on the bone. Additionally, as interests may vary over time and circumstances, it is crucial for the EU to explore new market-based relations under common standards, creating a systemic dialogue and reciprocal information-sharing mechanisms.

To this end, a solid foundation of data-governance and privacy rules is crucial. In fact, data can be defined as the 'oil' of a digital economy. With its recent effort in defining the Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Act, the Data Governance Act and Data Act, European institutions have taken significant steps toward the way European companies store, use, and process data and deal with privacy.

The European data economy itself, however, is still far from reaching its full potential, undermining its strategic digital autonomy.

Ahead of the 2024 European Parliament elections, the discussion on how data is processed for political advertising becomes increasingly important — to ensure transparency, protect citizens' rights, while fighting disinformation and interference.

The protection of citizens' rights online is at the heart of the future digital Europe. With the rise of Chinese imperialism and following the Russian aggression against Ukraine, malicious activities in the digital domain have intensified.

There is a need for the EU to be resilient in cyberspace. Cybersecurity vulnerabilities threaten the functioning of our economies, the internal market across the EU and represent a transversal danger to our societies. Being resilient in cyberspace requires strategic, proactive, integrated, and future-proof policy advancements.

Resilience can neither be built by force nor can it be regulated into existence without a comprehensive strategy that listens to the industry. This strategy must be future-proof and long-term, let the free market work, let the digital industry produce and avoid over-regulation. It may not be a miracle cure, but it represents a liberal best practice to ensure policies that are truly 'smart'.

And the EU must facilitate such a strategy 'yesterday', if it wants to secure its 'Fit4DigitalFuture' plan — and bring digital strategic autonomy to reality.

Like a computer, it is time for the EU to seek updates — perhaps even rebooting its operating system — reassessing its strategic priorities, strengthening relations with like-minded partners, and reconsidering those with strategic rivals. In times of smart-devices, achieving smart-policies is the only way to strengthen our digital future.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Digital EU: the Good, the Bad — and the Ugly, which you can now read in full online.

Author bio

Dr Antonios Nestoras is interim executive director at the European Liberal Forum (ELF) and Francesco Cappelletti, policy and research officer at the ELF.

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