(May 31): The technological Cold War that’s breaking out between the U.S. and China has exposed Europe’s awkward attempts to walk a fine diplomatic line between the two superpowers.
Super-fast 5G mobile networks are the most visible example. The EU doesn’t want to copy Donald Trump’s ban on China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. (despite his threat to curb intelligence sharing with the British unless they fall into line). But neither does Europe want to turn a blind eye to the Chinese cyber-security threat and evidence of the country’s unfair trade practices. The continent’s leaders are trying to find their own united path. It’s an encouraging ambition, but one that’s still a long way from being realized.
We’ll have a better idea of progress at the end of June, by which time EU member states are meant to have completed the first stage of a project to beef up mobile network security across the region. The aim is to set common technical standards and for countries to work together to identify any weak links that could infect the system at large. This is meant to lay the groundwork for a single 5G “toolbox” for the bloc by the end of the year.
The EU hopes that by presenting a combined front, it will have the power to dictate the terms of trade on 5G technology with China and avoid having to rip Huawei out of existing networks or disadvantage its own consumers by ditching a key supplier.
Unfortunately, history tells us Europe is often incapable of such collaborative endeavors. The willingness of EU member states to share sensitive national security information with each other is crucial to the 5G project. Such willingness has been in short supply before, and it’s not clear this time will be much different.
Several countries’ intelligence services — including those of the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Britain — have already raised flags about Huawei, of varying shades of red. But it’s hard to build a clear view of the threat because the information offered up by individual states is so patchy. This is not a rich tapestry of shared knowledge.
This reluctance to share intelligence is sometimes based on fear of where it will end up: Germany is one of several countries worried about potential Russian influence in Austria’s secret services, for example. At other times, governments don’t want to hand over information for fear of losing control or autonomy. Even in times of crisis such as the aftermath of a terrorist attack, national security services tend to distrust the big European institutions, according to Oldrich Bures, founder of the Center for Security Studies in Prague.
So there’s a risk that the latest network security initiative will end up resembling other worthy pan-EU projects that collide with national interests. These include a “Rapid Alert System” to fight fake news and disinformation on social media by encouraging EU member states to share information and coordinate responses, which has met with a lukewarm response. A lack of proper funding and political willpower have made it a “non-rapid, non-alert, non-system,” one Brussels official told Reuters.
The EU’s cyber-security agency, meanwhile, is due to get a bump in its yearly budget and personnel, but only in four years’ time, and even then to a hardly spectacular 23 million euros (US$25.6 million) and 125 staff.
Intelligence sharing is not a magic wand for dealing with the Chinese 5G problem, of course. The “Five Eyes” network – a spooks alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. – has been riven by disagreement over Huawei too. And with the Chinese company offering telecoms operators eye-popping price discounts of about 60% versus its closest competitors, according to the Washington Post, business interests will also have their say about how Huawei should be treated.
But unless the EU member states find a way to trust each other, their attempts to steer an independent course on the U.S.-China technology clash will look doomed.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.