The concept of European “digital sovereignty” has been promoted in recent years both by high officials of the European Union and by EU national governments. Indeed, France made strengthening sovereignty one of the goals of its recent presidency in the EU Council.
The approach taken thus far both by the EU and by national authorities has been not to exclude foreign businesses, but instead to focus on research and development funding for European projects. Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that this more measured approach is beginning to be replaced by ill-conceived moves toward economic protectionism, ostensibly justified by national-security and personal-privacy concerns.
In this context, it is worth reconsidering why Europeans’ best interests are best served not by economic isolationism, but by an understanding of sovereignty that capitalizes on alliances with other free democracies.
Protectionism Under the Guise of Cybersecurity
Among the primary worrying signs regarding the EU’s approach to digital sovereignty is the union’s planned official cybersecurity-certification scheme. The European Commission is reportedly pushing for “digital sovereignty” conditions in the scheme, which would include data and corporate-entity localization and ownership requirements. This can be categorized as “hard” data localization in the taxonomy laid out by Peter Swire and DeBrae Kennedy-Mayo of Georgia Institute of Technology, in that it would prohibit both data transfers to other countries and for foreign capital to be involved in processing even data that is not transferred.
The European Cybersecurity Certification Scheme for Cloud Services (EUCS) is being prepared by ENISA, the EU cybersecurity agency. The scheme is supposed to be voluntary at first, but it is expected that it will become mandatory in the future, at least for some situations (e.g., public procurement). It was not initially billed as an industrial-policy measure and was instead meant to focus on technical security issues. Moreover, ENISA reportedly did not see the need to include such “digital sovereignty” requirements in the certification scheme, perhaps because they saw them as insufficiently grounded in genuine cybersecurity needs.
Despite ENISA’s position, the European Commission asked the agency to include the digital–sovereignty requirements. This move has been supported by a coalition of European businesses that hope to benefit from the protectionist nature of the scheme. Somewhat ironically, their official statement called on the European Commission to “not give in to the pressure of the ones who tend to promote their own economic interests,”
The governments of Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden expressed “strong concerns” about the Commission’s move. In contrast, Germany called for a political discussion of the certification scheme that would take into account “the economic policy perspective.” In other words, German officials want the EU to consider using the cybersecurity-certification scheme to achieve protectionist goals.
Cybersecurity certification is not the only avenue by which Brussels appears to be pursuing protectionist policies under the guise of cybersecurity concerns. As highlighted in a recent report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the European Commission and other EU bodies have also been downgrading or excluding U.S.-owned firms from technical standard-setting processes.
Do Security and Privacy Require Protectionism?
As others have discussed at length (in addition to Swire and Kennedy-Mayo, also Theodore Christakis) the evidence for cybersecurity and national-security arguments for hard data localization have been, at best, inconclusive. Press reports suggest that ENISA reached a similar conclusion. There may be security reasons to insist upon certain ways of distributing data storage (e.g., across different data centers), but those reasons are not directly related to the division of national borders.
In fact, as illustrated by the well-known architectural goal behind the design of the U.S. military computer network that was the precursor to the Internet, security is enhanced by redundant distribution of data and network connections in a geographically dispersed way. The perils of putting “all one’s data eggs” in one basket (one locale, one data center) were amply illustrated when a fire in a data center of a French cloud provider, OVH, famously brought down millions of websites that were only hosted there. (Notably, OVH is among the most vocal European proponents of hard data localization).
Moreover, security concerns are clearly not nearly as serious when data is processed by our allies as it when processed by entities associated with less friendly powers. Whatever concerns there may be about U.S. intelligence collection, it would be detached from reality to suggest that the United States poses a national-security risk to EU countries. This has become even clearer since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the strength of the U.S.-EU security relationship has been repeatedly acknowledged by EU and national officials.
Another commonly used justification for data localization is that it is required to protect Europeans’ privacy. The radical version of this position, seemingly increasingly popular among EU data-protection authorities, amounts to a call to block data flows between the EU and the United States. (Most bizarrely, Russia seems to receive a more favorable treatment from some European bureaucrats). The legal argument behind this view is that the United States doesn’t have sufficient legal safeguards when its officials process the data of foreigners.
The soundness of that view is debated, but what is perhaps more interesting is that similar privacy concerns have also been identified by EU courts with respect to several EU countries. The reaction of those European countries was either to ignore the courts, or to be “ruthless in exploiting loopholes” in court rulings. It is thus difficult to treat seriously the claims that Europeans’ data is much better safeguarded in their home countries than if it flows in the networks of the EU’s democratic allies, like the United States.
Digital Sovereignty as Industrial Policy
Given the above, the privacy and security arguments are unlikely to be the real decisive factors behind the EU’s push for a more protectionist approach to digital sovereignty, as in the case of cybersecurity certification. In her 2020 State of the Union speech, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that Europe “must now lead the way on digital—or it will have to follow the way of others, who are setting these standards for us.”
She continued: “On personalized data—business to consumer—Europe has been too slow and is now dependent on others. This cannot happen with industrial data.” This framing suggests an industrial-policy aim behind the digital-sovereignty agenda. But even in considering Europe’s best interests through the lens of industrial policy, there are reasons to question the manner in which “leading the way on digital” is being implemented.
Limitations on foreign investment in European tech businesses come with significant costs to the European tech ecosystem. Those costs are particularly high in the case of blocking or disincentivizing American investment.
Effect on startups
Early-stage investors such as venture capitalists bring more than just financial capital. They offer expertise and other vital tools to help the businesses in which they invest. It is thus not surprising that, among the best investors, those with significant experience in a given area are well-represented. Due to the successes of the U.S. tech industry, American investors are especially well-positioned to play this role.
In contrast, European investors may lack the needed knowledge and skills. For example, in its report on building “deep tech” companies in Europe, Boston Consulting Group noted that a “substantial majority of executives at deep-tech companies and more than three-quarters of the investors we surveyed believe that European investors do not have a good understanding of what deep tech is.”
More to the point, even where EU players do hold advantages, a cooperative economic and technological system will allow the comparative advantage of both U.S. and EU markets to redound to each others’ benefit. That is to say, of course not all U.S. investment expertise will apply in the EU, but certainly some will. Similarly, there will be EU firms that are positioned to share their expertise in the United States. But there is no ex ante way to know when and where these complementarities will exist, which essentially dooms efforts at centrally planning technological cooperation.
Given the close economic, cultural, and historical ties of the two regions, it makes sense to work together, particularly given the rising international-relations tensions outside of the western sphere. It also makes sense, insofar as the relatively open private-capital-investment environment in the United States is nearly impossible to match, let alone surpass, through government spending.
For example, national government and EU funding in Europe has thus far ranged from expensive failures (the “Google-killer”) to the all-too-predictable bureaucracy-heavy grantmaking, the beneficiaries of which describe as lacking flexibility, “slow,” “heavily process-oriented,” and expensive for businesses to navigate. As reported by the Financial Times’ Sifted website, the EU’s own startup-investment scheme (the European Innovation Council) backed only one business over more than a year, and it had “delays in payment” that “left many startups short of cash—and some on the brink of going out of business.”
Starting new business ventures is risky, especially for the founders. They risk devoting their time, resources, and reputation to an enterprise that may very well fail. Given this risk of failure, the potential upside needs to be sufficiently high to incentivize founders and early employees to take the gamble. This upside is normally provided by the possibility of selling one’s shares in a business. In BCG’s previously cited report on deep tech in Europe, respondents noted that the European ecosystem lacks “clear exit opportunities”:
Some investors fear being constrained by European sovereignty concerns through vetoes at the state or Europe level or by rules potentially requiring European ownership for deep-tech companies pursuing strategically important technologies. M&A in Europe does not serve as the active off-ramp it provides in the US. From a macroeconomic standpoint, in the current environment, investment and exit valuations may be impaired by inflation or geopolitical tensions.
More broadly, those exit opportunities also factor importantly into funders’ appetite to price the risk of failure in their ventures. Where the upside is sufficiently large, an investor might be willing to experiment in riskier ventures and be suitably motivated to structure investments to deal with such risks. But where the exit opportunities are diminished, it makes much more sense to spend time on safer bets that may provide lower returns, but are less likely to fail. Coupled with the fact that government funding must run through bureaucratic channels, which are inherently risk averse, the overall effect is a less dynamic funding system.
The Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region is an especially good example of the positive influence of American investment in Europe’s tech ecosystem. According to the state-owned Polish Development Fund and Dealroom.co, in 2019, $0.9 billion of venture-capital investment in CEE came from the United States, $0.5 billion from Europe, and $0.1 billion from the rest of the world.
Technological investment is rarely, if ever, a zero-sum game. U.S. firms that invest in the EU (and vice versa) do not do so as foreign conquerors, but as partners whose own fortunes are intertwined with their host country. Consider, for example, Google’s recent PLN 2.7 billion investment in Poland. Far from extractive, that investment will build infrastructure in Poland, and will employ an additional 2,500 Poles in the company’s cloud-computing division. This sort of partnership plants the seeds that grow into a native tech ecosystem. The Poles that today work in Google’s cloud-computing division are the founders of tomorrow’s innovative startups rooted in Poland.
The funding that accompanies native operations of foreign firms also has a direct impact on local economies and tech ecosystems. More local investment in technology creates demand for education and support roles around that investment. This creates a virtuous circle that ultimately facilitates growth in the local ecosystem. And while this direct investment is important for large countries, in smaller countries, it can be a critical component in stimulating their own participation in the innovation economy.
According to Crunchbase, out of 2,617 EU-headquartered startups founded since 2010 with total equity funding amount of at least $10 million, 927 (35%) had at least one founder who previously worked for an American company. For example, two of the three founders of Madrid-based Seedtag (total funding of more than $300 million) worked at Google immediately before starting Seedtag.
It is more difficult to quantify how many early employees of European startups built their experience in American-owned companies, but it is likely to be significant and to become even more so, especially in regions—like Central and Eastern Europe—with significant direct U.S. investment in local talent.
Explicit industrial policy for protectionist ends is—at least, for the time being—regarded as unwise public policy. But this is not to say that countries do not have valid national interests that can be met through more productive channels. While strong data-localization requirements is ultimately counterproductive, particularly among closely allied nations, countries have a legitimate interest in promoting the growth of the technology sector within their borders.
National investment in R&D can yield fruit, particularly when that investment works in tandem with the private sector (see, e.g., the Bayh-Dole Act in the United States). The bottom line, however, is that any intervention should take care to actually promote the ends it seeks. Strong data-localization policies in the EU will not lead to success of the local tech industry, but it will serve to wall the region off from the kind of investment that can make it thrive.