Vehicles of Sovereignty

Expect the EU’s focus on technological sovereignty to begin shaping R&D policy

Author: Thomas König

In recent years, autonomy, resilience and sovereignty have taken centre stage in European policy debates. Policymakers pepper their talks with the words, while think tanks and research facilities try to give them meaning, and flesh them out into policy agendas. Probably the most sophisticated definition of technological sovereignty comes from a 2020 report from the Fraunhofer institute, which calls it “the ability of…a federation of states to provide the technologies it deems critical for welfare, competitiveness, and its ability to act, and to be able to develop these or source them from other economic areas without one-sided structural dependency”. This is well put, but the puzzle remains: why now? Or, phrased differently: what perceived problem will technology sovereignty solve?


Technological Sovereignty is here to stay

The answer consists of three converging global trends. The first is a new wave of trade wars. Economists might believe that free trade benefits everyone, but this is no longer a consensus among global leaders. As a consequence, supply chains are becoming volatile. The second trend is that the world’s two most powerful economies, the United States and China, are increasingly in competition. This leaves the EU, which has for a long time been both scared and animated by the idea that it could be a third economic bloc, scrambling for its identity and economic footing. The third trend is the digitisation of large swaths of the economy and society. This gives considerable power to whoever has the relevant digital platforms under its jurisdiction.

On these three, the EU has long trusted the power of free trade. It is – despite what Europe’s leaders say – not really seen as a relevant third bloc by the other two. And it cannot point to any significant digital platforms, with the possible exception of Spotify. All this makes policymakers’ focus on technological sovereignty understandable. The concept binds self-determination and autonomy together with a focus on the crucial prerequisites for growth: scientific knowledge, social and economic values, and material and regulatory infrastructures. Europe is rich in all these prerequisites; pursuing technological sovereignty aims to bring them to fruition. So, talk of technological sovereignty is probably here to stay. This raises another question: what, if anything, does this mean for R&D policymaking in Europe?

Scholars of R&D policy can point to several similar narratives that have driven the goals and process of policymaking in the past. Examples include the European paradox, the idea that Europe is good at research but bad at commercialising it. Technological sovereignty might become another such narrative. After all, the Fraunhofer report maintains that “broad investments in research and development are the basic prerequisite for establishing sovereignty in critical technologies now and in the future.”


Impact on European R&D Policy

So far, however, the buzz has hardly touched EU R&D policy. Instead, policymaking around technological sovereignty has concentrated on the long-unfashionable area of industrial policy. The Important Projects of Common European Interest, for example, are spending billions of euros of taxpayers’ money on giving Europe a global footing in sectors such as batteries, high-performance computing, and micro-electronics—just three of 30 such strategic value chains identified in a 2019 report. That said, technological sovereignty is likely to come to bear on the EU’s R&D funding instruments sooner rather than later. The effects on actual instruments, though, are likely to be minor. The research missions initiative within Horizon Europe, for example, and the European Research Infrastructure Consortia are already in step with the topic-oriented ambitions of advancing the next generation of technologies.

More likely is that these instruments will be used to incorporate the aforementioned value chains into European R&D funding. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in a field already crowded with interests, and how the Framework programme, which has so far served diverse political interests deftly, is affected. Also interesting will be Europe’s stance on technology. With tech giants such as Facebook and Google accused of creating surveillance capitalism, and with China pursuing technological authoritarianism, the digital realm has well and truly lost its utopian shine. A European alternative to US tech giants and Chinese autocracy would have to make sure that its sovereign technological capacities avoided antidemocratic and monopolistic outcomes. This will mean recognising that tech never comes without social values, and so drawing on the expertise of the social sciences and humanities. In the short term, this may make scientific progress less straightforward and technological developments more cumbersome. But then again, technological sovereignty is by design a promise for the long term.

Thomas König is head of strategy and scientific services at IHS and a long-time observer of European R&D policymaking.

This blog entry first appeared in Research Europe No 554 on 13 January 2022