“This public person thus formed by the union of all the others […] is called the State when it is passive and Sovereign when it is active. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social.
With the appointment in 2019 of Thierry Breton as European Commissioner for the Internal Market, in charge of the digital, space and defence industries, we now have the opportunity to define and build active digital sovereignty in response to the many dependencies and vulnerabilities that weaken European nations. Above all, we must put an end to the long process of “digital vassalage” that locks us up and exposes our digital infrastructures and data to digital competitors. In Europe, digital sovereignty cannot exist without the conjunction of the three P’s: Power, Planning and Performance.
P for Power
Far from being an abstract concept, technological sovereignty is first and foremost a power issue and a growth multiplying factor. The United States, China and Russia are constantly rebuilding their economic, industrial, strategic and military doctrines on the basis of technological independence and national digital self-sufficiency. The nationalist withdrawal of the three major world leaders is setting the pace for the rest of the world and forcing Europe to make decisive choices:
Take the easy way out by definitively joining one of the three spheres of influence (in this case the American sphere) and opting for comfort and continuity, anchoring us a little more each day in the addictive spiral of technological dependence;
Or to choose technological emancipation and the forced march towards independence by developing our own tools at the cost of significant economic and cognitive efforts and probable transitory performance drops.
To those who claim that it is impossible for Europe to do without American solutions, China provides an extraordinary counter-example since it has been able to redevelop at very high speed all the American technologies placed under embargo and banned for export. Each new American embargo has, in fine, accelerated the development of the Chinese sovereign industrial sectors. Russia has chosen the same path favouring the emergence of Russian solutions by accepting the loss of performance at the moment of the changeover. Europe must realize that every political decision, every industrial or scientific orientation in China, Russia and the United States is above all a matter of finding new levers of power.
In an interview with Les Echos, Thierry Breton recalled that “faced with the technological war between the United States and China, Europe must now lay the foundations of its sovereignty for the next 20 years. It is not a question of giving in to the temptation of isolation or withdrawal into oneself, contrary to our interests, our values and our culture. It is a question of making choices that will be decisive for the future of our fellow citizens by developing European technologies and alternatives without which there is neither autonomy nor sovereignty”.
Without praising withdrawal and isolation, we will still need a zest of strategic introspection and “Europa First” doctrine to move effectively towards sovereignty. Building a digital Europe that is technologically, scientifically, economically and financially sovereign requires a convergence of will, interests, means and efforts on the part of the Member States and their respective industrial ecosystems. The Franco-German tandem must logically become the driving force of this convergence by giving meaning and impetus to the European technological priority in terms of industrial creation and commercial development of European companies.
P for Planning
Planning, in the good sense of the word, can be very effective when it acts “vertically”, by large industrial sectors and by projects. These verticals include software publishing, electronic components (processors, boards, sensors, network equipment, hardware, IoT), hosting, massive data collection and processing (platforms and cloud), 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cybersecurity, robotics, quantum, financing of innovation, start-ups and scale-ups (investment banks, investment funds, VC, incubators, accelerators, …).
Vertical planning deployed over short periods (5 years) with annual feedback and readjustment enables the acceleration and solidification of companies in the sector while guaranteeing aid and financing for major industrial projects. The cloud sector has leading companies such as OVH, which work daily towards European digital sovereignty and have the operational capacity to federate an ecosystem on a continental scale.
The robotics sector is certainly the most promising in terms of active digital and industrial sovereignty. In the sub-domain of aerial UAVs, the French company PARROT is now the European leader in professional and civil UAVs and ranks second in the world just behind the Chinese giant DJI. In terrestrial robotics, it is the extraordinary company SHARK Robotics, born in 2016 in La Rochelle, which in only four years has managed to climb into the world’s Top 10 UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) Top 10, into the European Top 2 with the Estonian company Milrem Robotics and at the head of the French sector. Without any exaggeration, SHARK Robotics must be considered as a Google, an Apple or a Facebook at its beginnings! These industrial performances show us that the battle is not lost, that it is not played in advance, as long as we know how to preserve and grow European technological nuggets.
In this respect, planning must integrate strict control processes and permanent monitoring of the safeguarding of European technological industrial interests. In concrete terms, we must deploy specific tools on each vertical to detect and remedy situations of early (predatory) capture of the best European startups by our American or Chinese competitors. Without this shield of offensive economic intelligence, no sovereignty can emerge. These measures to safeguard Europe’s technological heritage require will, strategic determination, political courage, planning and power.
P for Performance
Building digital sovereignty means equipping oneself with tools, devices, processes and platforms designed and developed in Europe, and then with metrics that make it possible to measure the performance of these tools in relation to competing solutions. Without high-performance products and fair metrics, it is an illusion to hope that a form of technological sovereignty will emerge. The wide variety of devices, tools and processes contributing to sovereignty offers different levers which, if properly orchestrated, can accelerate the deployment of sovereign solutions on a European scale. The creation of European professional federations by technological verticals (Robotics, Vision Computation, Cybersecurity, Cloud), European sovereign funds, strategic funds, resilience funds in response to future health, environmental, migratory or geopolitical crises are part of the arsenal of sovereign devices. The support and assistance provided to companies of vital strategic interest through the GCAS Plan4 developed and activated by the France IA Hub in 2019 has demonstrated its operational effectiveness. It is now a matter of generalizing it and bringing it to the European level. The swarming of technologies from European laboratories and the financing of scale-ups selected according to their performance must be part of European processes that can be easily implemented.
In terms of infrastructure, it is essential to deploy 5G networks based on audited, analysed and certified equipment. 5G is a performance tool at the service of other technologies (Robotics, semi-autonomous systems, IoT deployed within the intelligent city). On the scientific and academic level, we must encourage the opening of European Research Institutes federated around the themes of digital sovereignty. New multidisciplinary university courses must complete the system to train European leaders (from the public and private sectors) on how to manage the digital transition. Each new scheme must be evaluated on its performance and its effectiveness in contributing to sovereignty.
All these measures have a cost that must be borne. This is the price of European technological emancipation. Let us be aware that this cost will always remain negligible compared to that of our digital vassalization.
4 GCAS Plan – Hub France IA
This post is also available in: FR (FR)