Europe Should Tear Down Digital Walls, Not Build New Ones

By Nick Clegg, VP, Global Affairs and Communications

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Financial Times.

It has long been the vision of European policymakers to make the continent a centre of digital innovation to rival the US west coast and China. With almost half a billion people across some of the world’s most advanced economies, there is no inherent reason why Europe should lag behind.

The EU is about to produce a raft of new draft regulations, including a Digital Services Act covering everything from misinformation to app stores. Europe has long been a pioneer in internet regulation — as the General Data Protection Regulation has demonstrated — and much of what it does will be followed elsewhere. So getting this right matters not only to the EU but to the future of the wider internet, especially as US-China rivalry intensifies.

The future of the global internet as we know it is far from assured. The rise of the Chinese model — segregated from the rest of the web and subject to extensive surveillance — presents a real risk to the open internet enjoyed by billions of users around the world. Other countries, including Russia and Turkey, have made similar moves to build digital walls and exert “data sovereignty”.   

Much of what the EU aims to do is admirably rooted in values like free expression, privacy, transparency and the rights of individuals. As the new rules are written, these values must be actively protected. But as the web fragments, Europe faces a fundamental choice: does it design rules to keep the internet open and global; or does it build barriers for the bloc alone?  

The temptation to do the latter is understandable, especially as other nations flex their digital muscles. But Europe’s competitiveness remains dependent on open global markets and unhindered trade within the single market. It is worrying that some regulators and governments are increasingly acting unilaterally within the EU. Last week, the Financial Times reported that regulators have a “hit list” of measures targeted largely at US tech companies. The free flow of data between the EU and third countries has recently been thrown into question, potentially hindering Europeans’ access to everyday services like online shopping, video conferencing and social media.  

A shift towards digital protectionism would be self-defeating. Far from putting Europe at the cutting edge, it could accelerate the splintering of the internet, leaving Europe a bystander as US and Chinese companies dominate. 

I may work in Silicon Valley, but I am a proud European. I have worked both in the European Commission and as a MEP. I would love to see the next Google or Alibaba emerge in Europe. But it won’t happen by accident. European policymakers need to maximise the bloc’s advantages — top quality talent, a large consumer market, first-class universities — and address its deficiencies — the lack of deep and liquid capital markets, and a patchy commitment to entrepreneurialism and innovation.

Above all, EU decision makers need to create a genuinely borderless Europe-wide market. If the numerous political declarations in favour of a digital single market were accompanied by action, that would already have become a reality. But it isn’t. To sell across the EU a start up in Lisbon, for example, still has to navigate different intellectual property laws, licensing rules and obstacles to the delivery of goods, .

This is even more urgent in the wake of coronavirus, as businesses use data and digital tools to rebuild. Reaching customers online is now central to how Europeans do business.

Sovereignty versus competitiveness is a false choice. The EU can have both, and remove internal barriers without creating new ones for businesses seeking to reach the vast majority of the world’s online population beyond EU borders. After all, its mission is to tear down walls, not to build new ones.

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