With the election of Biden as US president, the enthusiasm of some so-called “Atlanticists” in European countries to revive the transatlantic alliance has never been higher, and the European Union has a strong willingness to lead the shaping of the US-EU cooperation agenda and framework. Some foreign media disclosed that the European Commission and the European Union’s External Action Agency are jointly preparing a policy document to strengthen bilateral cooperation with the new US government, covering a wide range of fields from economy and trade to forest protection. One of the most eye-catching aspects is to push the two sides to build so-called “technology alliances” in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence and digital technology. Sabine Wayne, Director of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Trade, once told members of the European Parliament that the European Commission will propose the establishment of a “Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council” to develop joint standards for new technologies. The European Commission Trade Commissioner Donbrowskis also confirmed that this plan is on the agenda, and pointed out that Europe and the United States should join hands to “cooperate in new technologies and digital services, and reach agreement on regulation and standards”.
The EU actively seeks to build a “technological alliance” with the United States, behind which clearly lies the consideration of geopolitics and industrial competition factors. In recent years, the European Union has gradually felt China’s increasing competitiveness in such industries as communications, Internet, artificial intelligence, and new energy, and believes that this trend poses an increasingly strong challenge to it and requires focused “re-balancing”, though that is restricted by European rules.
At the same time, the EU’s concerns in the field of technological dominance are congruent with the United States’ approach of full-blown strategic competition and right up to the bottom of the barrel suppression of China in the fields of technology, economy and trade. The United States and Europe both intend to strengthen and maintain the dominant position of Western developed countries’ in the field of technology, rule setting and (control of) standards. In the future, the Biden administration is also expected to drastically reform his predecessor’s approach towards allies and to competition among major powers. It emphasizes the importance of multilateral coordination, alliance cooperation and rule-setting in technological competition. It would be happy to see the EU actively planning transatlantic technology cooperation proposals.
However, the “good vision” of the European and American “technological alliances” is likely to be affected by the structural contradictions between the two parties in the field of science and technology, which will greatly reduce their actual cooperation processes.
First of all, there is an obvious conflict of interests in the technological field between Europe and the United States. Taking the digital economy as an example, China and the United States can be described as the two poles in the global digital economy today, accounting for half of the added value in the global information and communication technology industries. The European Union has a very thin existence and does not have super digital enterprises of the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) or BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) kind. In the vision of “strategic autonomy” that has become very popular in Europe in recent years. Building strong forces in the fields of science and technology, industry, etc., so as not to be constrained by other major countries or regional forces and be compelled to change their own foreign and security policies ids therefore an important endeavour. Accordingly, the European Union proposed to build a “single digital market” in 2015, with an expectation of its digital industry growing and developing on par with China and the United States. The vision of “strategic autonomy” and “European sovereignty” has further strengthened the EU’s policy orientation.
Measures such as the “digital tax”, and the anti-monopoly and anti-tax evasion investigations carried out on digital giants, represent the EU’s shaping of its own digital economy market to some extent, which is intended to restrict the unscrupulous “brutal growth” of enterprises outside the EU. From the perspective of comparative advantage and maintaining the hegemony of the digital industry, successive U.S. governments, under the banner of “free market economy”, sought to make Europe a long-term “source of raw materials” (data and users) and a “commodity market” (products) for American digital companies. And secure unimpeded access to services market, which is the opposite of the EU’s aspirations and demands for self-reliance and countering-dependence. In addition, the the conflict of interests between the two parties is also fierce in civil aviation, renewable energy, bio-pharmaceutical and other fields,
Second, there are big differences in data governance between Europe and the United States. In recent years, the EU has pushed its own digital governance model to maximize the spread and spillover of the “Brussels effect”. For example, the European Union strongly promoted the “Single Data Protection Regulation” that came into effect in 2018. The European Court of Justice has decided to abolish the two major legal frameworks for data circulation between the United States and Europe, namely the “Safe Harbor Agreement” and the “Safe Harbor Agreement” that took effect in 2016 and replaced the “Privacy Shield Agreement”.
In recent years, the European Union has also launched a holistic data strategy and artificial intelligence strategy. The core task is to build EU-led technology ethics rules and ethical guidelines. While Europe is gradually expanding related industries, it is necessary to establish and expand rules to achieve relevant shaping. The development direction of the industry in the world, and the core of these efforts is the access to the EU’s single large market. At the same time, the EU has stronger progressivism in data content supervision and other aspects, and has a stronger will to govern the universal “political correctness” and extreme hate speech in the West.
The US data governance is more focused on maintaining the so-called free competition, free and open systems and promoting allies to build exclusive small circles from an ideological perspective, and even serving their intelligence cooperation networks and data monitoring interests. This will collide with the EU’s demands.
Third, the two sides have distinct positions on digital cooperation with China. At present, the United States is flaunting the ideological banner volubly under cover and slogan of security, concocting the concept of “data rights protection”, and launching the technological cold war for the purpose of eliminating Huawei. The situation is still intensifying. During the Biden administration, the United States is likely to use “more diplomatic” means, under the guise of multilateralism and gathering allies, to promote some form of “regular decoupling”. The EU is facing an unprecedentedly complex situation in the post-epidemic era. Facing the vitality and weight of the Chinese market, the EU has been deeply aware of the unrealistic and irrational nature of the call for “decoupling” with China. At the same time, cooperation in the digital field is also a potential new growth pole for China-EU relations in the future. The EU’s pursuit of “strategic independence” for self-reliance also means balancing the relationship between industrial competition and mutually beneficial cooperation, and unilaterally following the “returning United States” (call of Biden). It is not in the interest of the EU to act as a pawn of the US (and allow it) to consolidate its hegemony.
All in all, the negative impact of the proposal to build a “technological alliance” between Europe and the United States is worthy of attention, but the differences in the interests of Europe and the United States in the field of science and technology will undoubtedly restrict the prospects of advancement of this proposal. Both China and the United States and China and Europe are bound by ties of interest in related fields that are also very strong and difficult to cut off.
(The author is a scholar of the Institute of European Studies of China Institute of Modern International Relations)