Digital Sovereignty in Europe – a first benchmark

Digital sovereignty – not a uniform concept.

Based on published positions, statements and reports on the EU-level as well as for each of the 27 Member States and the UK, we find that digital sovereignty is not a uniform concept. Policymakers attribute various rationales and objectives to it and they use similar or different terms in its place, e.g., technology sovereignty.

Our analysis, however, suggests that despite different interpretations, there are three common dimensions of digital sovereignty: (1) privacy, (2) cybersecurity and (3) strategic. Whilst the first dimension revolves predominantly around the individual ability to control their digital lives and data, the second and third dimensions refer mostly to the collective level of states’ as well as the EU seeking to (re-)gain control and leadership in the digital age.

EU policy makers are seeking strategic autonomy.

Due to growing importance of digitalized infrastructure for the functioning of businesses and society, concerns emerge from an apparent lack of control over data on both the individual and the collective level. Hence, policymakers across Europe seek to (re-)gain control in an area that is dominated by firms originating outside of Europe.

The concept of digital sovereignty transpired already from many of the initiatives under the Digital Single Market in regards to cybersecurity, but also from strategic investments in artificial intelligence, robotics and high performance computing. The aim was to boost the EU’s research and industrial capacity as these technologies are considered key drivers of future innovation and economic growth.

The current Commission is pushing artificial intelligence and data economy with central policy measures and funding. In fact, a substantial share of the €750 billion recovery fund, announced during the Covid-19 crisis, is earmarked for fostering digital economy in the EU. Other important initiatives are to create a “single European data space” for the provision of digital tools originating in the EU and the European data infrastructure GAIA-X, aiming to establish a common data infrastructure based on European values.

Digital sovereignty is about striking the balance.

The EU as well as most of the countries analyzed however note that neither digital sovereignty nor strategic autonomy push for autarky or protectionism. Clearly, digital sovereignty is about striking the balance between achieving its own autonomy while still maintaining a diversified vendor portfolio and international trade relations, which are so important for many economies in the EU.

France and Germany drive digital sovereignty in Europe.

Around half of the EU Member States still follow a narrow interpretation of digital sovereignty predominantly along the lines of cybersecurity. In Western Europe and in the Nordics the dimension of cybersecurity is supplemented by the privacy dimension.

For the European economic heavyweights France and Germany as well as digital leaders such as Denmark and Estonia the concept of digital sovereignty encompasses all three dimensions whilst the strategic dimension appears to dominate at the moment. However, France and Germany stand out and apply the broadest scope of digital sovereignty as their strategy papers lift the concept even to being a matter of defending European values such as freedom, solidarity and tolerance.

Limiting non-European suppliers for 5G; fostering existing alliances.

The restrictions put in place to limit or exclude certain vendors from the rollout of 5G networks in some Member States and most prominently in the UK represent another example of countries seeking to limit non-European influence in the context of digital sovereignty. The actual measures taken vary across the analyzed countries but appear to be guided by existing economic and geopolitical alliances.

The study is available for download.

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Dr Bernd Sörries
Phone: +49 2224 9225-23
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Peter Kroon
Phone: +49 2224 9225-58
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