The European vision of digital sovereignty: From principles to action

21 Jun 2022 10:30h - 11:15h

Session webpage

Event report

The Opening Plenary session discussed the state of digital sovereignty in Europe and debated what principles and values underpin Europe’s vision and the specific European approach to digital sovereignty. The moderator, Mr Paul Fehlinger (Co-Founder, Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network and Affiliate, Harvard University BKC), explained that the topic of the EU digital sovereignty is debated under three lenses at EuroDIG: definitions and overlook of the current approach, an analysis of the consequences of the current approach on internet infrastructure, and a discussion of how to pursue this strategy in an interconnected world.

How do we define EU digital sovereignty?

Digital sovereignty is a multidimensional concept: different aspects come into play when we consider it from economic, political, or human rights points of view. Each speaker highlighted a specific perspective. Mr Werner Stengg (Expert, Cabinet of Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President and EU Commissioner for Competition) focused on EU citizen and business control over digital transformation and data. Ms Francesca Bria (President, Italian National Innovation Fund) considered that economic and political aspects also come into play when defining sovereignty. In essence, it is a society’s ability to set the direction of technological progress while attaining environmental sustainability. Mr Alberto Di Felice (Director for Infrastructure, Privacy and Security at DigitalEurope) defined it as the ability to build and maintain technological and scientific expertise in critical digital technology in both the private and public sectors in a global, interconnected and competitive market. Ms Fanny Hidvegi (Director of Europe Policy, Access Now) defined it as the capacity of the EU to set its own digital direction not oriented by profit and surveillance, but by the existing human rights framework and its principles of a rule of law.

What is specific about the EU approach to digital sovereignty? How does this strategy translate principles into action?

Di Felice explained that the specificity of the EU approach lies in values and norms. The EU is anchoring its regulations into its rule of law principles and democratic values. For example, the current DSA regulation establishes that democratically elected institutions should set the rules of the game. In this sense, the EU is working together with like-minded countries, such as the USA, to develop this discussion further at the global level. In addition to the discussions on values, considerable investment in digital transformation is coupled with significant developments on the regulatory side. This combined effort ensures that guiding principles are also translated into action.  

Bria further explained the specificity of Europe’s ‘digital constitutionalism’. Currently we have two leading models regarding digital governance: on the one hand the ‘big tech model’ (i.e., what some call ‘surveillance capitalism’) used by the technical companies in Silicon Valley and, on the other hand, the ‘digital authoritarianism’ espoused by authoritarian and nondemocratic countries. However, the EU is introducing a third way: that of ‘big democracy’ which is rooting digital sovereignty in European constitutional values and principles. She stressed the importance of including technological innovation and industrial policies in this approach. With 25% of the EU Resilience and Recovery Facility dedicated to digital transformation, the EU should capitalise even further on its ‘tech champions’ to harness those sectors (e.g., biotech and healthcare, digital ID systems) that would allow businesses to grow.

Speakers considered whether the EU approach to digital sovereignty is an enabler of growth for European businesses. Di Felice stressed the importance of developing a digital sovereignty approach that allows companies to benefit from digitalisation and that would ultimately foster social and economic well-being. He clarified that although in social sciences the term ‘sovereignty’ seldom assumes a negative connotation, as it refers to a specific approach by authoritarian regimes, in the case of digital transformation we should contextualise it within the broader framework of the fight against monopolistic tendencies of big companies. This is also why the EU is discussing its approach internationally with like-minded countries, such as the USA, in fora as the trade and technology council.

A few critical considerations and challenges to the current EU approach were mentioned. First, within the EU member states countries have different approaches to national sovereignty. A few of them are not really in line with the EU human rights values and rule of law. Second, significant geographical limitations are apparent in the state of the internet infrastructure across EU member states. Third, the existing definition of sovereignty is quite vague; thus, each member state tends to interpret it in accordance with its national interest.

Hidvegi further considered the main problem in aligning policies to values: enforcement. Although the European Commission is the guardian of the current provisions, significant enforcement challenges arise in enforcing compliance with member states. As these are broad challenges of the current EU system, they may emerge also when developing digital regulations.

Are we heading in the right direction?

The speakers’ answers spanned from a firm ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and anywhere in between, since digital sovereignty is a multifaceted issue where different factors and nuances come into play. Di Felice warned against the protectionist side of sovereign approaches. Moreover, it still remains to be seen to what extent the application of the rules will play in favour of business. Bria is positive about the current approach and advocated for it to be even more ambitious, to ensure that investment is channelled in the right direction towards scalable and sustainable projects. Hidvegi added that digital sovereignty should not be the end goal, but, rather, a way to apply existing values to digital space. She still remained sceptical as to the enforcement of rule of law principles within the EU. Stengg added that we should always have a clear understanding of what ‘direction’ means. On the positive side, the current approach is developing a human-centric digital policy and setting a framework that is pro innovation.  

By Marco Lotti