„Why Europe should embrace the digital revolution“
Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the „Digital-Life-Design“ Conference in Munich
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you very much for the invitation and for the opportunity to speak briefly about Europe and what is necessary on our continent.
To understand our digital future allow me to briefly take you back in time to the early 15th century. In the 1430s, the first European sailors – commissioned by the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator – travelled past West Africa in their quest for a sea route to India.
At about the same time, in 1433, the Chinese Emperor did the exact polar opposite: He dismantled the legendary Treasure Fleet that had been scouting the Indian and Pacific oceans for decades. He thought that the Middle Kingdom had more urgent problems at home and more promising business in the neighborhood.
Both these events are well-documented, but the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari recently put them into the context that concerns our modern age: One region of the world – Europe – sought its fortune in exploring and conquering unknown territories; the other, China, became more inward-looking and by that involuntarily initiating the decline of its dominant role – that is, until its resurgence in our modern age.
Winston Churchill famously said: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” Which is why, at a conference on the future of our life, society and business, I chose to go back 600 years. For in uncertain times like these we should try our best to look as far ahead as possible. What will future historians have to say about Europe’s role in exploring the new scientific frontiers of our times? Will we be known as the ones who chose to remain in the boundaries of the well-known? Or as those who ventured into the digital terra incognita and conquered it?
Back in the 15th century, Europe started out on its path to rule the world for the next centuries to come. Looking at the world today, a new scramble for power seems to have begun. And more than ever before, technological progress is key.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, called “the competition for Artificial Intelligence superiority the most likely cause for World War III”. According to Vladimir Putin, “the one who becomes the leader in technology will become the ruler of the world”. Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, speaks of a coming “global tech cold war”, with the US and China competing to master next-generation technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and supercomputing.
Reading these quotes, I wonder if the issue of digitization should not play a more prominent role at the Munich Security Conference next month. Maybe we should join hands between both conferences.
We see a competition between two models of society. There is the “Silicon Valley” model, with a more or less libertarian and privately dominated industry and the so-called Big Five: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. And then there is the Chinese model, with tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu benefiting from government policy, controlled markets and regulation.
We Europeans, and we Germans in particular, have become most critical of the global information dominance exerted by the Big Five. Their control of global data, their model of surveillance capitalism, and the soft-footed import of American laws, norms and values into Europe have angered our people and politicians alike.
But from a foreign policy perspective, other considerations should also inform our debate. Let us briefly look at China. So far average European consumers have had no personal experience with Chinese software giants, but that might change. We have not yet felt the full impact of China’s bid for technological dominance, but their software companies are entering our market.
Like the US after the Sputnik shock in the 60s, the China of Xi Jinping is embarking on a massive investment program in cutting edge technology. Its state controlled companies prosper behind a protective Chinese wall, while the 1.3 billion people market is a fertile environment for all sorts of Big Data ventures. China has announced it wants to have ten global tech leaders established by 2025. So this is just around the corner.
And the digital revolution is enabling authoritarian regimes to become more authoritarian. „Big brother meets big data” – the most drastic example is the Social Credit System that the Chinese government is currently setting up with the help of its tech-sector to control the behavior of its citizens through preferential service provision and public naming and shaming – an Orwellian scenario if there ever was one. However, coupled with a powerful market, strong user incentives and global business ventures, this approach to the digital age will become a major challenge for our foreign policy, for our democratic institutions and the rule of law.
But as we rightfully take issue with both the Silicon Valley and the Chinese model, there is a growing sense that for the first time, technological developments may put “the West” and its open societies and markets at a global disadvantage, rather than ahead of the curve. And this comes at a time when our liberal world order is already increasingly under strain.
And here, we are right back at the question of Europe´s aspiration and ambition. What will be our role in this digital age? Are we going to be idle spectators of the new Cold War on technology? Will we offer up our economies as a battleground, eventually joining this side or that one? Or can Europe come up with better answers, decidedly European answers, grab its share of the future and be a player itself?
We do not exactly have a head start in this race. Other than China and the US, the EU is neither one powerful state nor a truly strategic actor in the digital revolution. We are a fragmented union with millions of voices, engaged in a wordy debate on the digital future, an immeasurable variety of opinions, including those who just see digitization as a temporary trend that will burn off like so much morning fog.
I have been pleading for the EU to start defining its common interest as a starting point for developing a more strategic approach to world affairs. Technology may well be a very appropriate area to begin with – a unique opportunity to revive Europe. What do we have to do?
First of all, we need the determination to protect, hedge and breed our national and European assets. If other players think strategically about their pioneering companies, we should not only serve as component suppliers and niche producers.
Secondly, if data truly is the „new oil“ as the single most important commodity of our time, Europe needs to overcome its comparative disadvantage and find sustainable modes of mining and using its resources.
Data protection is a distinctive feature of a liberal society. But to foster innovation and shape our digital future, we need to reconcile the great achievements of our civil society with the demands and necessities of a global economy.
Thirdly, we must do so across the borders of our European nation states: Too many national regulations and requirements hinder the growth of potentially pan-European companies. Therefore, we need an initiative among member states that pushes to create a truly Digital Single Market inside the EU, which builds the basis for growth and innovation.
Lastly, the question of progress depends on our willingness to take risks. We need to commit large sums of money and enable our European pioneers to forge ahead, even if a decent return on our investment is not always guaranteed.
To change our course and accept risks, we need to have a common goal. Without a vision of Europe as a global champion of technological innovation, we cannot overcome our differences and reservations and we cannot find a balance between privacy and regulation, liberalism and security concerns, dogma and pragmatics. This is a watershed moment, a formative phase for the world of tomorrow. Our common goal has to be this: to build a strong Europe, a global actor – we never learned to be a global actor. Europe was founded for interior reasons, to stop the war in Europe, to improve our economies. We are trained for internal issues. The American narrative is quite different: they know what to do and they are acting accordingly in the world. We have a European narrative as well, we also know what is going on in the world, but we are hesitant to engage more closely on a global scale. Let the Americans do it, or the French, or the UK, but we do not want a European approach, for when it fails, we will have no one to point fingers at. We have to change our attitude to become a world actor. This is what is necessary to move forward in our European development. Our common goal has to be to build a strong Europe, a global actor, with the capabilities to shape world events rather than being shaped by them.
I started this speech with the description of Portuguese sailors 600 hundred years ago. Their „drive to explore and conquer“ – like all those European pioneers who followed in the next centuries – was not a goal in itself. It was itself driven by economic interests, geopolitics and leaps in technology and knowledge.
Today, these factors have become intertwined like never before. This means that Europe not only needs to brace for change but also to embrace change.
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