The Platform

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In the modern world order, political lines are blurring. Security bleeds into economics, trade into conflict. Cybercrime has become the covert weapon of state powers. Migration is being instrumentalised by certain nations to destabilise others. Private military forces have changed realities on the ground in armed conflicts, from Ukraine to Mali — taking the monopoly on violence away from national forces.

In Europe, storms are coalescing on many fronts. The world is a very different place from the one seen 20 years ago. For France, during its current European Council presidency, priorities include a bloc-wide minimum wage, more regulation on digital giants, and a carbon border tax.

Since the speeches at the beginning of his presidency of France, Emmanuel Macron has stressed, time and again, European sovereignty. But it has become clear that any formulation of sovereignty must be both a political and an economic one. Macron seeks a “powerfulEurope — in defence, technology, and border security, a vision made clear in one of his speeches in December last year.

His approach recognises a need to find strength as a bloc. The EU has been falling behind in research, strategic capabilities, and world influence. There are many areas of significant technological development, in China and the U.S., that could drastically impact the European economy if it fails to accelerate its own prospects. This requires a special emphasis for change to occur.

Equally, being unable to assert wishes on the world stage could hinder European economic prosperity. Donald Trump may no longer be the president of the United States — for now — but the cost of his tenure endures. The globalist, collaboration-oriented economic model has been weakened; at least in part, replaced by a more nationalistic trend. Democracy is backsliding.

Economic sovereignty

In today’s world, the idea of a sovereign state encapsulates economic dimensions as well. As we see other world powers doing, the EU needs to consolidate its approach and combine political will with economic steps.

The EU was founded on the idea that if a group of nations have their economies fused together, the resulting bloc is diametrically opposed to armed conflict. Over the years, European leaders have tended towards viewing all issues through the lens of economics, employing only legislative and financial levers to enact change. Sadly, there is no point in playing one game, while the rest of the world plays another. Modern developments have demonstrated that the EU must evolve — or dissolve.

If European values are to survive and prosper, they must be asserted. This means, not a more insular approach, but one that is more cohesive and forceful; differences in regulatory sentiments are already plainly evident between the EU and the U.S., signaling increasing separation in the future. Historical reliance on service providers from outside the EU needs to be, from here on, justified. Otherwise, not only is economic opportunity ceded to external markets but so too are European capacities to assert principles. Political will must be matched by economically sovereign policies.

Perhaps this is not a vital consideration in every project, but for those with strong European signatures — be it energy projects, defence, border security, and technological domains that affect the ability to compete — companies need to be European in name and substance.

One reason for this is that each time a nation outsources, it also degrades its own ability to produce that capability. These types of problems are seen clearly in military-industrial matters.

If you simply buy from someone else, you lose the ability, through the loss of infrastructure, expertise, etc., to produce an asset domestically. Capabilities need to be financed, and niche expertise needs to be maintained. If Europe aims to be strategically autonomous in any sense, leaders need to keep this in mind by supporting local manufacturers and homegrown specialists. A “European Buy Act” would go some way towards supporting this principle.

A coherent identity

The next reason relates to consistently expressing one’s identity. Each time the EU hires companies, for example, foreign private military contractors (PMCs) with questionable professional conduct, this leaves a mark on the European reputation. While those in the EU might brush over these episodes, outside nations peer in at what they see as hypocrisy.

In sovereign security matters, it is vital that EU companies forwarding EU values are emphasised. The bloc’s extensive use of companies, largely from the UK and North America, in security operations in Afghanistan was an error. And this has been highlighted by recent and ongoing headlines surrounding these kinds of companies.

Given the official EU policy on the use of PMCs in conflict zones, and the spiraling standing of these companies in the world — caution is essential. Europe is walking on a knife-edge, and the last thing it needs is to be dragged down and distracted by novel scandals.

Another area of concern in the digital age, of course, is cybersecurity — the new invisible frontier of state-on-state conflict. For European companies, huge steps are necessary in order to catch up with the North American giants. And the risk that European development is suppressed by an overreliance on American companies like Microsoft or Palantir continues.

Already Microsoft’s Windows is the dominant operating system around the world. The company is also making moves to steer European decision-making through involvement in the European Cyber Agora, a multi-stakeholder forum for policy setting on EU cybersecurity.

The company’s expertise, generally unquestioned despite rampant, global cybersecurity risks — lends the decision pragmatic sense. But from the position of European sovereignty, it is a double tragedy: Microsoft’s market dominance not only prevents European successors from emerging but also cedes European cybersecurity to the U.S., a nation locked into a divergent philosophical path from that of Europe.

Next, energy has always been a sovereign domain. In the modern era of e-vehicle development, this must extend to the economics of battery production. Europe currently produces only 7% of the global supply of lithium-ion batteries. In China, the figure is around 80%. This imbalance clearly presents energy security concerns that will hinder the advancement of European values.

The EU recognised the potential for the weaponisation of China’s supply dominance, launching the Battery Action Plan in 2018. By early 2020, just four battery production facilities were up and running across Europe: Samsung’s in Hungary, LG’s plant in Poland, Leclanché’s site in Germany, and Envision AESC’s facility in the UK, which is no longer an EU member.

Looking to the future, significant steps are being taken. The European share of global supply is expected to rise to 31% by 2030. But just as one might notice of the companies currently operating in Europe, the largest contributors will be foreign.

South Korean companies continue to make up a sizable share, with the largest production coming from American superpower Tesla’s planned factory in Germany. Despite plans for legislation to give preference to European-made batteries, the foreign share, and therefore control, of the future market is undeniable.

To summarise, European sovereignty should not be conceived of only as of the treatment of sovereign tasks: the performers of such tasks matter — at least as much as the tasks themselves. This means that contracts cannot be awarded without due consideration to the nationalities and track records of service providers.

Daniel Myers is a retired civil servant from the European Union and former contract analyst for the United Nations.