The development of the internet is the defining technological transformation of the era, opening up a new information age in which global communication can happen in an instant. This unprecedented situation is underpinned by infrastructure in the form of physical cables that criss-cross the world, over land and under oceans. Those cables that lie at the bottom of the sea are a cornerstone of this network, and thus of modern life. Indeed, 97% of internet traffic and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions pass through undersea cables, which collectively run for 1.2 million kilometers – more than three times the distance from the earth to the moon. The infrastructure that makes the internet work is increasingly a focus of geopolitical competition. Who owns undersea cables and what routes they take are increasingly sensitive questions in this. These cables play a critical role in data protection, economic development, and diplomatic relationships between states. Currently, the United States and China are the main players – and rivals – in this market, in terms of both whose companies physically build the infrastructure and which countries are drawing infrastructure issues into wider geopolitical questions.
Unlike these two global powers, the European Union is yet to fully flesh out its own approach to the issue. This could weaken its efforts to become more sovereign in a world of increasing geopolitical competition. Instead of working together in pursuit of shared European interests, EU member states and EU-based companies still largely compete with each other in the roll-out and management of internet infrastructure. At the same time, EU-based companies have well-established relationships in numerous states; they have built and financed the construction of much internet infrastructure around the world; and they operate many existing undersea cables. Europeans should, therefore, capitalize on these strengths by devising and implementing a strategy to identify and support undersea cable projects and incentivize the creation of pan-European consortia, especially in their most immediate neighbourhood: non-EU Mediterranean states and adjacent countries.
Throughout the EU’s wider neighbourhood, geopolitics influences states’ decisions about who is allowed to build internet infrastructure and where they can do so. The US and China differ in their approaches, but both are racing ahead of the EU – globally, including in the Mediterranean – in their influence over internet infrastructure and the states that depend on it. Hence Europe can (and should) increase its connectivity within its neighbourhood and become a strategically sovereign player in a sector of increasing international importance. It is in the EU’s interests to pursue effective initiatives with other states to boost internet infrastructure both to create business opportunities for European companies in the wider Mediterranean region and to strengthen its own political and economic sovereignty there. The EU’s potential as a regulatory power is particularly significant but woefully unfulfilled. Geopolitical shifts present an opportunity for the EU to become a stronger player in this sector, but they also create other imperatives for it to act. If the EU does not begin to marshal all its strengths in the world of internet infrastructure, it will be obliged to play by rules set by others.
The EU is actively working to define a stronger and broader policy on the development of internet infrastructure and its geopolitical implications. But the bloc needs to take the following steps to maximize its influence and defend and promote its interests in this sector: Firstly, Brussels should devise new EU goals and guidelines on consortia, licences, and new digital infrastructure. The European Commission could also warn member states against projects that include companies that may pose a threat to EU interests, such as by creating channels for foreign governments to exert pressure on member states. More generally, the EU and its member states should agree on a common approach to dealing with other global powers in the sector. In China, which is a competitor with, and potential threat to, Europe, the strategy should be very different – stricter limits should be set on what European companies can and cannot do when cooperating with Chinese firms that have links with the Chinese government.
Secondly, Brussels should support pan-European consortia in EU-driven projects. Such moves by the EU could drive broader cooperation among EU telecommunications companies across the wider Mediterranean region. It is also in the EU’s interest to create synergies with relevant regional players in the Mediterranean region. In particular, the bloc can engage in fruitful cooperation with Gulf states and the Gulf Cooperation Council to increase the sector’s EU presence across this part of its neighbourhood. Such a strategy should address three key points: ensuring internet infrastructure is high on the EU-Gulf political agenda; harmonizing current regulations between the EU and countries in the wider Mediterranean region; and establishing a supra-regional forum to facilitate cooperation among EU and Gulf companies and states. This could potentially increase the EU’s importance to these states, which currently cooperate mainly with the US and China in the internet infrastructure sector.
Thirdly, Brussels should encourage a diplomatic resolution to EEZ disputes in the eastern Mediterranean. Current tensions about the delimitation of the EEZs in the eastern Mediterranean hamper the EU’s ability to diversify undersea cable routes. The EU should, therefore, seek to mediate the ongoing crisis about EEZ demarcation in the eastern Mediterranean, given the region’s importance to maintaining strategic undersea cable routes between Europe and Asia. Fourthly, the EU should protect the security of internet infrastructure and users’ data. Without military forces directly available to it, the only way the EU can help protect internet infrastructure is to work with its member states, NATO, and countries in the wider Mediterranean region. The EU should make the protection of digital infrastructure a geopolitical priority and encourage EU member states that also belong to NATO to deploy a military presence in places of cooperation and with its partners across the wider Mediterranean region. In terms of data security, a NATO military presence could also help prevent data tapping by hostile forces, thereby also benefiting states that host the relevant infrastructure.
And, finally, the EU should improve internet infrastructure in Africa, whose economy would benefit significantly from a boost in digital connectivity, which would create new job opportunities and reliable infrastructure. The EU could work with the African Union (AU) to provide political and technical support in the establishment of new infrastructure that connects countries to one another. The EU and the AU can do this together by setting goals in the realm of digitalisation and financing strategic projects. The EU should back its companies in creating synergies and business partnerships to invest in the region. The bloc could also work with the AU to harmonize the market and thereby facilitate investment in the region, which would be beneficial for European companies and would speed up internet infrastructure development in Africa. The EU could look to advance a partnership with the AU to improve economic relationships between states in Africa through cooperation on internet infrastructure. The creation of a regional network that fully connects all states would help boost e-commerce and other internet-related economic activities, supporting wider inter-African economic integration. Such an initiative would also open up new possibilities for EU-based companies to invest in the construction of new infrastructure.
Network Effects: Europe’s Digital Sovereignty in the Mediterranean – Policy Brief by Matteo Colombo, Federico Solfrini and Arturo Varvelli – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.