Thursday

22nd Feb 2024

Opinion

Europe is lacking tech leadership

  • Most of the tech stories coming out of the EU are tax-fines for multinational corporations, or battles over free speech vs hate speech (Photo: Andrew Neel)

Henry Kissinger once asked who do I phone if I want to phone Europe. An updated version of this question might be who do I Skype?

Crisis after crisis has left a continent without a cohesive vision of the future, particular how it plans to support, develop or regulate new technology.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Macron has proposed a new inter-governmental agency on innovation, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (Photo: GotCredit)

This is dangerous. Europe, along with America, has led the world in supporting fair and responsible innovation. A free global internet was not a passive development, and - as Trump's move on net neutrality shows - needs consistent support.

Europe cannot sit by and let private enterprise or China (or a Zuckerberg presidential run in 2020) set the norms for artificial intelligence or driverless vehicles.

Europe needs to shape technology for the benefit of citizens and the economy. But who can step up?

First, let's rule out those who definitely won't.

Nationalism rules out Hungary and Poland. Populist challenges ahead of elections leave Italy navel-gazing – similarly Spain has its territorial future to worry about.

Russia has already proven its maleficent use of tech, and increasing pro-Russian sentiment in countries like Austria is worrying.

Germany, despite its strong science base and high research spend is reluctant to lead. Due to their troubled past, citizens are rightly wary of biological manipulation or access to personal data.

The liberal FDP were the only party ahead of the federal election with anything to say on digitalisation. Problematic implementation of new laws on digital content and terrible internet coverage also gives a poor impression of the country's attitude. A watery new 'Grand Coalition' is hardly going to rock the boat.

The UK is more liberal towards innovation, regulating early and supportively for genomics or mitochondrial donation. But the civil service's limited foresight is consumed by Brexit.

Meanwhile both major parties are backward looking with neither setting out their vision for how should be used to benefit citizens. Threats to scientific links with the continent could isolate Britain and deprive the EU of expertise.

Eyes to the north

Northern Europe is doing better.

Thanks to a global outlook and heavy investment Stockholm is a thriving hub for start-ups with unicorns like Greta and Detectify.

The recent amalgamation of innovation agencies, Finpro and Tekes, into Business Finland and savvy use of state returns on investment in Nokia also makes Finland a great place to trial tech.

Estonia showed real leadership on digital issues in their recent EU presidency, showing that digital interactions with the state can be more efficient, more enjoyable and still private.

As every Norwegian already has their tax information available to the rest of the country, Scandinavian attitudes to transparency might help boost big data.

But despite Estonia's recent efforts, the EU as a whole lacks cohesion on emerging technology.

The EU has the power to defend its values from technological revolution.

But regulation is often slow and not future proof. The furore over GMO crops has left Brussels wary of supporting innovation. This week's decision on lighter-touch regulation for gene editing crops is positive, but has taken years and still lacks boldness or clarity.

Margarethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, has been bold towards tech companies, but must be careful not to make protecting both innovation and the public a binary proposition.

Vestager's actions must be balanced by a coherent European narrative on technological spaces, like the completion of the digital single market, or faster progress on driverless vehicles rather than the vague 2025 roadmap.

The EU is going to have to make bold decisions where foreign relations, privacy and the single market meet.

As state-backed Chinese companies like Alibaba move into the EU the 'Brussels Effect' will be put to the test. The EU would have to take firm action to stop these companies shipping data back to their version of the 'Politburo'.

Protectionism could help European start-ups to grow, but will make it bureaucratic for them to go international and might lead to retaliation or the 'Balkanisation' of tech.

There is hope in Paris.

Macron has urged the EU to support radical innovation to maintain its competitiveness, and the lure of labour reforms and the 2024 Olympics tech companies are supporting his vision. His proposed new inter-governmental agency on innovation, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could develop European expertise and policies on AI or new biotech.

In the proposal for a new Grand Coalition, this even got conservative backing from Germany.

Macron in China

Macron's recent trip to China also underlines his desire for Europe to set the rules for artificial intelligence, with strong words on Chinese attitudes to openness and calls for a European big-data strategy, alongside greater cooperation with the East.

Instead of intergovernmental cooperation in the model of science infrastructure like CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), or the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), Macron should push greater collaboration through the EU.

Emerging technologies are not about pure scientific endeavour but are closely tied to how people interact, eat, shop and move. Leadership in these areas needs more than research, but policies to protect individual rights, and European values.

Significant investment needs coordinating with other large funds, something the European Research Area is set-up to provide.

To ensure a truly European set of values Macron should open up cooperation to neighbours, Norwegian and British expertise will be invaluable, but so will making sure countries to the south and east follow European attitudes - and not those of Russia or China.

Sam Alvis is a policy professional, specialising in EU research and innovation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Taking full benefit of supercomputers in Europe

Newly-announced financial help for so-called 'supercomputers' can help both EU member states, and small and medium-sized companies to grow - in fields such as health diagnostics, driverless cars and even earthquake predicting.

EU recycles old promise to fund supercomputers

The European Commission promised that the EU would spend around €1bn in public funding on the development of 'supercomputers', but a closer look at the legal documents revealed that this is based on old promises.

EU wants tech firms to police internet

The European Commission wants private companies to police the internet for hate speech. But civil groups and CEOs of major tech firms object, preferring clear rules and regulations.

Is EU retail sector equipped for 21st century?

After a thorough analysis in cooperation with EU countries we have identified many regulatory restrictions that hamper innovation and investment in the retail sector.

EU-Israel trade agreement must be on table to stop Rafah attack

The EU-Israel association trade agreement enabled €46.8bn of trade last year. Exports rose for both parties by around 20 percent in 2022. As the bloc's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: "Yes, we have the capacity to influence [Israel]."

Latest News

  1. EU auditors: rule-of-law budget protections only partial success
  2. EU's €723bn Covid recovery fund saw growth, but doubts remain
  3. Von der Leyen rejects extremist parties, leaves door open to ECR
  4. Russian oligarchs failed to get off EU blacklist
  5. Podcast: Navalny, Ian Bremmer and "more Europe"
  6. Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza
  7. Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?
  8. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us