Europe’s ‘sovereignty fever’

Press conference by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on the Commission’s new strategy: Shaping Europe’s Digital Future (19/2/2020). Photo: Etienne Ansotte / EC - Audiovisual Service, ©European Union, 2020. Elcano Blog
Press conference by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on the Commission’s new strategy: Shaping Europe’s Digital Future (19/2/2020). Photo: Etienne Ansotte / EC - Audiovisual Service, ©European Union, 2020. Elcano Blog
Press conference by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on the Commission’s new strategy: Shaping Europe’s Digital Future (19/2/2020). Photo: Etienne Ansotte / EC – Audiovisual Service, ©European Union, 2020

In the midst of rivalry between the world’s great powers, or perhaps precisely because of it, ‘European sovereignty’ has become the new watchword and new aspiration of certain prominent EU leaders, from the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to the French President, Emmanuel Macron. Or it has returned to the agenda, in circumstances very different from before, now that sovereignty is emphasised by the likes of the US, China, India and Russia, among others, and the EU is diminished in the wake of Brexit. Essentially built upon the rule of law and with a multilateralist bent, the EU is ill-placed to deal with the crisis in international law and multilateralism stemming from this emphasis on sovereignty. The talk in the EU is of ‘strategic sovereignty’ (essentially military), and of ‘technological sovereignty’, with the advent of technological domination in the dynamics and language of geopolitics.

An example of the lack of sovereignty is the nuclear deal with Iran. The EU, as partners in and promoters of the deal, tried to salvage it when the Trump Administration withdrew, but is ultimately having to yield to the US. Will something similar end up happening with the US veto on Huawei involvement in 5G technology?

On 19 February the European Commission issued three major documents: a declaration about the EU’s digital future, a white paper on Artificial Intelligence and a European Strategy for Data. With their release, Andrea Renda, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, heralded the dawn of ‘Digital Independence Day’ in Europe. Really? Simultaneously, the Commission has earmarked an annual budget of €20 billion for European artificial intelligence. Even if it generates a multiplier effect, by way of comparison, on its own Google (Alphabet) spends more on its R&D every year.

The EU, despite what it spends –because it spends little and badly– is in a situation of military dependence on the US, and of digital colonialism with regard to US digital companies (and increasingly Chinese ones). Sovereignty also involves the international influence of a country’s companies. This is not the same thing as the government controlling those companies. Often it is almost the reverse (something highly pertinent to colonialism, unlike imperialism). Washington does not control Apple, Google or Amazon, although the Chinese Communist Party does wield control over Chinese corporations. Of the 10 largest corporations in the world, according to Forbes, none is European (the largest, the Volkswagen Group, comes in at number 18). Learning to speak the ‘language of power’ and of geopolitics also entails, for the EU, acquiring capabilities, and not only military. One such capability would involve the inclusion, before the current European Commission’s term is up, of at least two European companies among the top 10, knowing full well that there is not going to be any European search engine or company comparable to Google/Alphabet. It is necessary to invent other things, hence the Commission’s proposals to focus not only on the immediate future but also, especially, beyond it. In 2000, when it approved the ill-fated Lisbon strategy, the EU set out to become ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’ in 10 years. Twenty years later, the less ambitious goal is ‘to become a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications’.

For Macron, European sovereignty means the ‘capability to act’ independently, a certain freedom of action in Europe. It also entails the freedom of not being swept up by the decisions of others –freedom from action– as has previously been the case with the invasion of Iraq (2003), or could happen with policy on China; or being subject to the foreign sanctions imposed by the US on third-party countries. But this might better be referred to as ‘autonomy’, the term that was used before ‘sovereignty’ came into vogue.

European sovereignty has a domestic dimension. Mark Leonard and Jeremy Shapiro, of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), describe ‘European sovereignty’ as a ‘problematic term’, because it seems to remove sovereignty from national capitals in order to recreate it in Brussels or Frankfurt, as occurred with the euro, where sovereignty was re-established at the expense of a merely apparent national sovereignty. However, in its announcements the Commission mentions the danger of ‘fragmentation’ between member states. To overcome this, it supports specific joint initiatives for ‘for closer and more efficient cooperation between member states’ in key areas and proposes a new system of governance such as a ‘framework of cooperation of the competent national authorities’ for Artificial Intelligence.

Internally, this integration is not, or was not, a dilution of sovereignty, but rather a shared sovereignty that ought to end up meaning more collective sovereignty and its restoration, something that is viewed askance in Washington, Beijing and Moscow. In The European Rescue of the Nation-state, Alan Milward argued in 1993 that European integration had served to strengthen the member states. This is no longer so true, and therefore it is necessary to move on to the truly European dimension. If we really want a European sovereignty, we must think more about Europeans from the perspective of European and national reality. It is necessary to think about the reason for Europe, about the European interest in the same way one thinks about the reason for the state or the national interest. But of course, this is not possible with the divisions that exist on so many issues between member states, or with the rules of unanimity, or when a transition of power is taking place in Berlin and the essential Franco-German axis seems paralysed.

Externally, European sovereignty means taking back from the US and China (but also the markets) this capability to act, in all respects. Europe sees itself as a regulatory superpower (as Anu Bradford cogently argues in her recent book, The Brussels Effect), because it has had relatively global successes in terms of imposing its standards, for example in the field of data protection (the GDPR), in road vehicle safety and soon in the tax on carbon and on digital commerce. It now wants to repeat this in Artificial Intelligence and data, among other areas. That said, it is unlikely to maintain such sway unless it preserves or increases its capabilities. As Guntram Wolff rightly points out, ‘referees don’t win’ matches.

None of this entails Europe abandoning inevitable global interdependence –the Commission advocates ‘international cooperation’– or the transatlantic alliance with the US, which goes beyond NATO. But many Europeans, as a new Carnegie report indicates, have lost trust in Washington, where Trump is barely interested in Europe, in a trend that can be traced back even to Obama. Even if a Democrat wins in the US in November, there will be no return to 2016 or earlier, since ‘trust in US leadership has been irreparably damaged’. And the US has changed, something that also helps to account for this new appetite for European sovereignty.

Before talking about European sovereignty, it is necessary to learn to think about it, and equip it with the instruments, with the capabilities, even with the way of doing business that will make it possible. For the Europeans it is a case of taking their destiny into their own hands, something that cannot be awaited but must rather be won, and this entails rethinking European integration for purposes other than the original ones. For it was not founded on this idea of outward-facing sovereignty. But the world has changed. It is a real collective challenge.