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A Global Digital Agenda: Five Steps To Ensure Europe Becomes A Soft Power Superpower – Analysis

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By Marietje Schaake*

Europe’s soft power was long one of the continent’s unique selling points — from the transformative power of its enlargement that advanced peace and stability as it harboured in new member states, to expending the world’s most generous development budgets, to its own experience and credibility in overcoming conflict and putting human rights on top of the agenda.

No more is this the case. Nationalist political winds pull leaders’ gazes inward and on the defensive when it comes to euros and minutes spent on foreign policy. French President Emmanuel Macron recently blocked accession talks for Albania and Northern Macedonia, and in the fight against terrorism or while managing migration, a euphemistic ‘pragmatism’ often wins over principles.

With the rule of law challenged in a number of member states, it is harder to convincingly call out violations elsewhere. Meanwhile, multilateralism is pressured by the abdication of leadership by its once strongest defender, the United States. Still, hyper-connectivity and nationalism are difficult bedfellows: the open internet simply stops to flourish when borders and minds are closing. A zero-sum articulation of narrow self-interest needs to be replaced with a new appreciation for and articulation of the interdependence of our globally connected world. Change will require an injection of values and stronger governance in the public interest. Europe’s soft power can get an enormous boost if it can take up the mantle of leadership towards articulating rules — and principles-based governance of technologies.

That is why EU’s new leaders should double down on updating Europe’s global digital agenda efforts. It is in its own self-interest, and crucially, the EU could re-emerge as a beacon of hope and leadership for people globally at a moment when principled leadership is increasingly rare.

So far, there has been too little political attention on how technology impacts Europe’s role in the world and how it should inform adjustments to foreign policy. Elsewhere, new alliances are forming that present diametrically opposing visions for extending power into the digital world. Governments roughly fall into two categories: those who want to realign the internet with their sovereign territories by placing it under direct control, and those who strive to keep an open internet that connects people and content across borders. Illustrative of confrontations between these visions are the several initiatives at the UN level where global consensus has been impossible to achieve.

Implicitly, the General Data Protection Regulation is already a famous European export product. Feared by many companies, while welcomed by people who want to see the right to privacy survive digital disruption, it underlines the ‘first mover advantage’ in regulating the global digital era.

But given the many opportunities that remain untapped, the new European Commission — which its President has promised to shape as a “geopolitical commission” — is well advised to include an ambitious global digital agenda that promotes democratic governance of technologies and data. Europe’s experience with governance across borders places it in a good position to show how rules can be developed and enforced, enabling data flows and respecting civil liberties alike.

A democratic governance model of technologies and data

The connection of everyone and everything is leading to a redistribution of power that is not matched with a redistribution of oversight and accountability. The rule of law does not apply online as it does offline, and a race to the bottom and lawlessness must be stopped. In the absence of a rules-based framework, corporate and authoritarian actors decide. Meanwhile, there is little accountability for aggressive behaviour and the violation of international law in cyberspace. For people worldwide, the protection of the public interest — a secure and open internet — cannot be overstated. Europe should strive to develop a democratic governance model for technology together with like-minded partners like Japan, Canada, India, and Australia. The following five elements should form the foundation of a democratic governance model of technologies and data.

1.  Digital trade

For data to flow freely, the conditions under which this can happen securely and while protecting people’s rights must be made crystal clear. We are witnessing a transition from trade in goods to trade in services, as well as the digitalisation of services. This requires an adaptation of trade rules to ensure fairness that will in turn enable a level playing field and high standards. Instead of working on the basis of ad hoc adequacy requirements, a standard digital trade chapter should form the transparent basis for engaging in negotiations. The EU should also engage at the WTO level to empower the organisation as it works on global e-commerce and digital trade rules.

New barriers, such as forced data localisation measures or requiring companies to hand over the source codes of their products, should be prevented. In an interconnected world, there can be no place for digital protectionism.

2.  Pairing digital development and human rights

Digitalisation risks exacerbating existing inequalities, not only within societies, but also globally. Billions of people in the global South do not have access to the open internet and can easily fall victim to predatory tactics by tech companies. Digital divides and datacolonialism are of growing concern. [1]

As the EU seeks to boost the competitive and innovative capacities of developing economies through aid, investment, and trade partnerships, the rights agenda must be pursued equally ambitiously. Rolling out new technologies, such as artificial intelligence-driven apps and services, without data protection laws in place render people vulnerable at the mercy of the most powerful. The EU should emphasise assistance in establishing proper legal frameworks, as well as capacity building and training of regulators in getting up to speed with both skills and mandates. Particular attention should be placed on digitisation of electoral processes to ensure democratic rights are protected.

3.  Defence and security

The emergence of new technologies leads to a number of new security risks. Disinformation undermines the democratic rights of people, and hybrid conflict can impact states and non-state actors alike. Escalation of cyberattacks is likely with more people and devices coming online, often without proper safety standards in place.

The availability of strategic technologies and automated lethal weapon systems must be met with proper scrutiny. To advance cybersecurity, trade in destabilising technologies, such as hacking tools and surveillance systems, must be curbed. Until rules are in place, a moratorium is justified. Similarly, coordinated standards to screen foreign direct investment in companies producing sensitive technologies at the civilian-military interface will advance security.

4. Closing the accountability gap

The EU should articulate which technologies it will not use, such as lethal autonomous weapons systems. Additionally, it should strive to close the accountability gap and ensure that peace and justice in cyberspace are advanced. Too often, there are no consequences to cyberattacks or data breaches, which erodes trust in the idea of justice. Chains of responsibility between governments and private sector actors need to be clarified.

Questions of liability, oversight, and accountability often remain vague or even obscure even as private sector companies take on growing numbers of tasks as digitisation and automation increase. Guidelines on the application of existing (international) law in cyberspace are needed to clarify the relation between cross-border data flows and national jurisdictions on matters related to laws of armed conflict, data protection, and e-commerce. But beyond clarifying how existing laws apply and who is responsible, closing the accountability gap will involve adopting new norms. Articulation of responsible behaviour from state and non-state actors alike will advance the stability of cyberspace.[2]

5. Digital Envoy

For the EU to properly streamline the various aspects of its digital foreign policy, it needs to appoint a Digital Envoy. In close cooperation with the responsible members of the European Commission as well as the High Representative, the Digital Envoy would also coordinate between the bilateral tech Ambassadors that member states have begun appointing. For Europe to have maximum impact, it must act strategically and join forces amongst its member states, and with like-minded countries and other stakeholders.

The European Union has historically been an advocate of a rules-based system and is well positioned to develop democratic governance rules for technologies, data, and the open internet based on the rule of law. By focusing on trade, development, security, and human rights standards, articulated by a digital envoy on the global stage, Europe will give a significant boost to its soft power by promoting a global digital agenda and by advancing a democratic governance model. Such a role can only be credible and successful if the EU leads by example and shows it can generate growth on the basis of the principles it defends.

*About the author: Marietje Schaake is president of the CyberPeace Institute, Switzerland.


[1] Renata Avila Pinto, “Digital sovereignty or digital colonialism?”, SUR, no. 27 (2018).

[2] See, e.g., GCSC, “Advancing Cyberstability”, November 2019.

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