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4th Feb 2023

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To lead in cyberspace, the EU needs to avoid digital tribalism

  • The EU should regularly assess how its laws and policies — such as the recently announced cyber defence policy, the NIS II Directive or the ethical principles for AI — may impact other parts of the world (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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The European Union's view of digital diplomacy as articulated in July 2022 centres on working closely with "like-minded partners". Whilst this may be a good starting point, if the EU wants to build broad support and strengthen its position as a norm-setter in the existing and emerging digital technology areas, it needs to remain fully committed to multilateralism as being globally inclusive rather than coalition exclusive.

EU policymakers in Brussels must therefore resist the temptation to form "digital tribes" of the so-called like-minded countries or other values-driven technological alliances.

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The EU has established itself as a leader of digital transformation. But as decisions about the future of cyberspace increasingly become part of the geopolitical balancing act, the EU needs to build partnerships that are future-proof and reflect the key trends of the digital world.

Over the past 10 years, at least 70 countries — including Iran, Thailand, Botswana, Ghana, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia — have registered an increase of about 25 percent in their internet penetration. With 2.7 billion people still offline, according to the International Telecommunication Union's 2022 data, the biggest rise in online population in the coming decades will come from Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America.

As this happens, these regions are expected to pay increasing attention to digital and cyber policies, including the regional agenda for digital transformation by the Organisation of American States, the ASEAN Digital Masterplan (2021-2025) or the African Union's Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030). The EU needs to prioritise engagement with those regions to demonstrate the universality of the values it promotes, lead the way in ensuring common standards for the internet, secure market access, and secure their support in multilateral fora.

Adapting diplomacy for the digital age

Currently, the dominant view in the EU is that if it wants to speak the language of digital power, it also needs diplomats who can speak that language. More importantly, the EU needs to build an army of diplomats who can skilfully translate "EU-speak" into a universal and globally acceptable language. The EU Cyber Diplomacy Network — once operational — together with the EU networks of cyber and digital ambassadors will be the key vehicle to make this happen. But there are multiple challenges along the way.

First, to avoid digital tribalism the EU needs a strategy to better engage with the Global South, including the emerging digital powers such as Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, and Senegal, countries which are expanding their influence in cyberspace but are not necessarily part of the like-minded formations. Developing regional or country-specific cyber and digital roadmaps might provide a way forward.

Second, to set norms and standards globally, the EU should regularly assess how its laws and policies — such as the recently announced cyber defence policy, the NIS II Directive or the ethical principles for AI — may impact other parts of the world. The external effects and unintended consequences for the global, free and open nature of cyberspace need to be anticipated. A proper external impact assessment and genuine consultations with international partners regarding the EU's planned technology regulation would be a valuable tool.

EU quiet on internet shutdowns

Third, the EU needs to expand the use of the Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox to promote the EU's vision for a "digital future" globally. Part of that vision is the EU's commitment to human rights online. But the EU has kept its explicit criticism of practices such as internet shutdowns or the sales of surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes rather quiet. Adopting a more coherent approach and a comprehensive use of all EU tools and instruments, including human rights and political dialogues with third countries, is important.

Finally, the EU's diplomatic service needs to become fluent in framing and reframing cyber and digital issues to better navigate and exploit the existing international regimes (i.e. trade, human rights, crime). This requires significant investment in strengthening skills and knowledge among the EU's diplomats, starting from the very top. Only then the EU will be able to achieve its foreign and security policy goals within the existing (or new) international organisations.

With some countries questioning the universality of the EU-promoted norms and values, re-stating their importance and building barricades to defend them will simply not work. Instead, to steer digital transformation globally and shape the future of cyberspace, the EU needs to opt for an ambitious and inclusive network diplomacy that demonstrates why the solutions, standards, and norms it promotes benefit everybody.

In the age of geostrategic competition, leadership is demonstrated not by flexed muscles but by rolled-up sleeves and a willingness to cooperate globally.

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

Patryk Pawlak leads the work of the European Union Institute for Security Studies on cyber and digital issues. He is project director for the EU Cyber-Direct European Cyber Diplomacy Initiative, and co-editor of the Directions Blog on cyber, digital and tech issues.

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