Framing digital policy as a geopolitical race is risky. It can divert attention from the respect for human rights and proper regulation, and pave the way for a narrow focus on speed and quantity. Yet artificial intelligence remains a crucial geopolitical issue, even if leading European politicians have only paid lip service to it so far.
In this two-part interview, Green MEP Alexandra Geese and cyber expert Marietje Schaake emphasise the need for the EU to act as one on the geopolitics of technology. They talk about how technology can serve the people, how Europe can set global standards, and why the digital space is central to geopolitical debates. Success will depend on a real European approach committed to investment, digital rights, and coalition building.
Green European Journal: What are the main ways in which technology manifests as a geopolitical issue?
Marietje Schaake: We cannot think of technology as a sector anymore; it is a layer of almost everything. So when it comes to geopolitics, a country manifests its strength through its ability to create technologies – for example, its market power, its ability to defend itself against cyber-attacks or even to wage cyber-attacks; essentially its ability to promote its interests and values through everything digital. In that sense, Europe is much stronger when it comes to protecting its citizens than it is geopolitically.
Europe lacks a strong geopolitical agenda or the political will to operate geopolitically. National governments still want to hold on to as much agency and power as they can, and are not operating as one. This was clearly illustrated in the case of 5G network technology, where equipment from Huawei and ZTE from China came under scrutiny, partly due to US pressure. While the EU has a single market, it has no single vision on national security. For this reason, there is growing friction between national security and geopolitical concerns and the promise of a single market.
In an era of increased systemic competition between geopolitical blocs, it is a problem if the EU cannot connect strategic, security, and economic concerns, as well as values and rights. The EU is currently leading on the values and rights side – although it needs to become stronger – but when it comes to its tech industry, the situation is not as good. Geopolitically, there are weaknesses, mainly because of the way in which governments cling to their national positions in the world, instead of building a joint European position.
In an era of increased systemic competition between geopolitical blocs, it is a problem if the EU cannot connect strategic, security, and economic concerns, as well as values and rights.
Is a more general geopolitical awareness lacking across Europe?
I think there are large differences between member states in their analyses. Wherever we look, we see fragmentation, and a fragmentation of priorities. There is growing awareness of geopolitical shifts, but different priorities lead member states to different answers. Countries like the Netherlands, as well as some of the Nordic and eastern European countries such as Poland, have a very strong orientation towards the US. While these countries would ordinarily inclined to opt for a transatlantic alliance, they are increasingly disappointed with what is actually coming out of the transatlantic relationship.
France is promoting a much more sovereign and autonomous European Union. Others remain undecided in order to pragmatically navigate decisions. Italy is an important pragmatic country but to some extent so are Spain and Germany, as issues such as Nordstream 2 or making clear choices about risks related to the rise of China show. Economic investments can undermine the ability to share a geopolitical position and leave European countries open to external pressure. Ever since Chinese investors bought the port of Piraeus, for example, Greece has not been part of EU statements condemning human rights violations in China.
How would you rate the Commission’s geo-political awareness in relation to technology?
We hear a lot of statements and intentions. Ursula von der Leyen has declared this Commission as the “geopolitical Commission”, and there is a lot of activity on the tech side. So, something is obviously happening. But the question is, can it all be brought together? Can there be an integrated policy that combines economics, geopolitics, and rights and principles in an efficient way? There is no clear answer from Brussels. That is obviously because there is no mandate from the member states.
Vladimir Putin famously said that the country with the best AI will be “the ruler of the world”. Is the race for AI a zero-sum game?
I am not in favour of being deterministic in that sense. Many of our expectations about the transformative power of the internet in the last two decades did not hold true, so I would not dare to predict what will happen in the next 10 or 20 years. But clearly there are aspects of AI that authoritarian, top-down regimes can benefit from disproportionately. Their ability to assemble massive amounts of data with no respect for civil liberties or human rights, for example, makes it easier to deploy certain applications of AI, such as facial or emotion recognition systems. These systems can be used to keep people under control, as we see with the Uyghur minority in China.
The question is what the impact of essential democratic and rule of law principles will be on the scaling and training of AI systems. I already see a tendency on the part of US companies, for example, to ask for exceptions. They argue that regulation will not allow them to compete with China as successfully, and that the US will lose the race. In other words, their argument is that the best defence of democracy comes from unregulated US tech companies.
I fundamentally disagree. Giving companies so much leeway has not led to a stronger position for democracies. Not in societies, and not between coalitions of democracies. It is risky to frame the issue as a race; it might mean that principles or quality will be pushed aside for speed and quantity. Seeing China as an opponent, without looking at the need to safeguard our open societies, can justify policies or decisions that take us in the wrong direction.
It is risky to frame the issue as a race; it might mean that principles or quality will be pushed aside for speed and quantity.
Can the EU lead the way on the ethical regulation of AI?
It depends on our ability to convince other democratic nations to join us. It is disappointing that there is still no firm alignment between the EU and the US on this matter. The US is much stronger in the military and security field. The EU, on the other hand, is better placed when it comes to rights and protections, as well as being a provider of development assistance across the world. Combining the two could bring out the best of both worlds.
But even in that relationship, it is difficult to come to a common approach. I think it is a mistake for the EU to hope that just because it has a first-mover advantage, it will continue to set global standards. There is a lot of activity in the US – much more than we have seen for a long time – and there are also regulatory initiatives in Asia. Just expecting that others will follow the EU is not enough.
Is there scope for international partnerships between the EU and other players to cooperate more deeply on tech regulation and digital rights?
The EU should invest much more in an alliance between democratic states. It is ironic that it is US president Joe Biden who will host the next summit of the alliance of democracies and not the EU. The EU has been more proactive when it comes to regulating tech according to democratic standards, and it has been more credible over the past four years when it comes to democratic principles.
This failure of initiative shows a lack of geopolitical strength. The EU is an obvious leader when it comes to multilateralism; it has a number of key partners not only in America and Asia, but also on the African continent. It is important to make this multilateralism a global effort and not just a transatlantic or Western effort. After all, we are geographically connected to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure and the Middle East. If we do not want conflicts to escalate and people to be displaced, which I think is the consensus right now, then we have to be more capable of shaping the outcomes, not just with development support but more proactively across the board.
How should the EU relate to China?
This is still in flux. If China acts too quickly and is not careful, things could go terribly wrong. Beijing is increasingly assertive and ambitious and is proactive not only at home but also internationally, seeking to claim a greater role within the United Nations and other multilateral fora, particularly around tech standards and development. It is an enormous country with a leadership that is determined to retain maximum state control. The Communist Party is willing to sacrifice economic interests for its power. In this context, the EU must see it for what it is, and also understands where the battlegrounds lie globally. Investment in digital infrastructure is pouring into developing countries, in central Asia for example. These are regions where the EU could make a decisive difference, and I hope it does.