Networks & Geopolitics: Why the EU Must Claim Its Place in the 5G Race

Written by | Wednesday, August 12th, 2020

As the advent of 5G gathers pace, the EU must ensure that it becomes a relevant player in the race for a ubiquitous technology that will redefine the world we live in, argues Nicolás González Casares, an MEP and member of Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, in his recent op-ed in The Parliament Magazine. The introduction of 5G offers great promise, a new way of living and working, a new era with great hopes during uncertain times. But beyond the enthusiasm surrounding this new technology, there are at least two issues that must be addressed: the need to guide a technology that promises to change the world and the need to protect against the risk of external interference, specifically due to 5G’s central role in our future social and economic relations.
As the European Commission points out, China is now a “cooperating partner” and a “negotiating partner,” with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests. It is an “economic competitor” in the pursuit of technological leadership and a “systemic rival” in the promotion of alternative models of governance. If there is one domain that reflects these tensions, it is the digital one, especially the power struggle between the US and China over the dominance of 5G networks. There are growing accusations against certain Chinese companies for allegedly creating back doors in their equipment that would allow the Chinese government access to data and communications of users using these networks.
Over the past few months, EU and national authorities have conducted a thorough audit of the strengths and weaknesses of their networks and their threat preparedness in the deployment of 5G. And the diagnosis has been surprisingly realistic: greater exposure to attacks and more potential entry points for attackers; greater exposure to risks related to the dependence of mobile network operators on their providers; greater risks arising from high dependencies on providers, and yes, interference from third countries. Europe cannot limit itself to being a battleground where the US and China engage in their power games; it cannot a­fford to be reduced to a contested market, but must become a relevant player in the race for a ubiquitous technology that will redefine the world we live in.
Europe cannot limit itself to accepting more technology and rules from third parties, but must define them on the basis of solid ethical principles. If this was important before the Covid-19 pandemic, it is even more so after it. If anything has become clearer, it is the crucial nature of electronic communications in homes and businesses and the need to extend 5G coverage to every corner of our territory so as not to generate new gaps in societies that are increasingly dependent on high-speed connections to carry out their daily activities. It is therefore of the utmost importance to combat the unscientific claims which were made about this technology during the pandemic, taking advantage of citizens’ concerns over any potential threats to their health.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has focused on “achieving technological sovereignty in some critical technological areas”: such as blockchain, high-performance computing, quantum computing, algorithms and tools to enable the exchange and use of data. It is true, however, that among the top ten technology companies worldwide by market capitalisation, eight are American, one is Chinese and one is South Korean. If we look at the turnover, there are five American companies in the ranking, one Chinese, one South Korean, one Taiwanese and one Japanese. There are no European companies.
The fact that no European company leads the world rankings does not mean that there is not a rich and innovative digital ecosystem in Europe, in areas such as artificial intelligence, 5G, data analysis or cyber security. In cyber security, for example, the EU hosts a wide range of specialised centres, and in AI, Europe hosts 32 percent of the world’s research institutions. Such knowledge, if transformed into marketable products and solutions and incorporated into our economy, could enable us to make the necessary leap to leadership. In conclusion, Nicolás González Casares says that he agrees with Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton that Europe has everything it needs to lead this technological race; we have plenty of capacity and talent. But let us move now from words to action.

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