If Europe doesn’t take action and put its money where its mouth is, it is likely to end up a Techno-colony. As the Conference on the Future of Europe meets for the first time, participants need to set out an ambitious vision with clear demands.
By Omri Preiss and Benjamin Zeeb
As the Conference on the Future of Europe Plenary session launches in Strasbourg, the stakes are high. The Conference is supposed to bring the EU into the 21st century and has the ability to shape the conversation. But as a deliberative body, it has no executive power. It should compensate for this by being visionary and ambitious in the milestones it sets. And one major milestone needs to be investment in a common future. For Europe’s citizens and residents to have any ability to determine their digital futures, decisions need to be taken now. It is up to the Conference to shape these decisions.
What is at stake is not only Europe’s economic competitiveness but existential choices about the relationship between human and machine. Europe’s digital future can be one of prosperity, inclusion, and participation in a vibrant democracy. It can also become a Techno-colony. It would be a dependent backwater where citizens are subject to monitoring by authoritarian governments like China’s, surveillance by US tech monopolies and large stretches of post-industrial warehouses and data centres filled with low-paid people working for machines. The question is will Europe be able to stand up on the world stage to defend democratic values of universal rights and liberties?
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, activity has been intensive. China has been investing heavily in its Belt and Road initiative, which spans the entire Eurasian landmass. The Chinese government has launched a Made in China 2025 goal – an investment plan that would make it entirely technologically autonomous in 4 years’ time. At the same time, China has been exporting tech infrastructure, like 5G networks and nuclear power plants, which give it immense reach into its clients’ vital infrastructure. Do we really know which parts of critical infrastructure are at risk if tensions ever rise?
To the west, Biden has acted forcefully to leave a mark, and it shows in the numbers. The American Rescue Plan included $1.9 trillion in spending, the Jobs Plan will cover $2.3 trillion, and the Families Plan will see $1.8 trillion more. Last week, the Senate approved a $250 billion capital investment in key emerging technologies to match the Made in China agenda.The number is almost as impressive as the fact of a bipartisan vote. It sets out to avoid dependency on others for sensitive infrastructure and to secure America’s lead.
And what is Europe doing? Well, last summer the European Council barely scraped together an urgent rescue package of €750 billion. Four “frugal” states didn’t want to pay. As one popular Dutch comedian put it in one ignorant xenophobic segment, “why should Dutch taxpayers pay for an Italian mortgage?”. Compared to the new US tech fund, the Digital Europe Programme is a mere €7.5 billion. That’s right, the EU is spending just 0.03% of what the US has put in. Yes, national budgets are also at play in Europe, and yet, nothing matches the scale of American and Chinese ambition.
This means that unless significant action is taken soon, Europe and everyone who lives here will be left out and left behind. Our rights online will end up depending on US corporations and US voters, as well as a Chinese government that rules through gross human rights violations. European ability to use technologies for prosperity and democracy will depend on compliance with authoritarian world views or business models that trample values. In the end, frugal taxpayers will save no money, and also won’t have much of a say over their children’s future.
So what is there to do? Invest in a common future based on values. When the Conference on the Future of Europe meets, participants need to demand that the EU puts its money where its mouth is. Match US investment in emerging technologies, and also prioritise digital literacy education and quality internet access for all. As part of its investment, Europe needs to ensure technology serves human wellbeing. These programmes need to include systems to protect from disinformation spread and end mass surveillance online as well as socially manipulative algorithms. Europe needs to set a democratic standard for itself that others will need to take into account. The EU-US Council on Trade and Technology launched this week could be a move towards asserting a leading role, if the EU steps up ambitions, or a slope towards colony status, if current trends continue.
If we act now and if the Conference sets out a vision, Europe can still emerge as more than just a blob of landmass on the end of Eurasia and a transatlantic techno colony. Europe can stand up for humane inclusive prosperity and fundamental values, but that requires investment now.