The EU’s New Digital Vision

On Monday, the Council of the European Union published a policy report outlining the EU’s new approach to digital diplomacy. As I argue in this blog post, the EU’s policy report is important for three reasons. First, it was published in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine War in which digital technologies have played a crucial role. Russia, for one, has used digital technologies to disseminate false information about the War including alleged atrocities committed by Ukraine. Ukraine, on its part, has used digital technologies to crowdfund its military forces and create the world’s first Hacker Army. The EU’s policy report thus comes at a time in which the very practice of digital diplomacy is being reshaped by geopolitical crises. Second, the policy report adopts a “human centric” approach to digital diplomacy, one that seeks to ensure the digital rights of EU citizens. Third, the report calls for the creation of digital alliances through which states may jointly address digital risks and vulnerabilities.

The EU’s policy report focuses on two interrelated activities- digital diplomacy and cyber diplomacy. On the digital diplomacy front, the Council urges the EU to develop a coherent and integrative approach to digital activities. Such an approach rests on developing the digital resilience of the EU and its member states, or developing the ability to identify digital risks and vulnerabilities. This is especially important given the Council’s emphasis on countering hybrid warfare and information manipulation. In other words, the Council emphasizes the need to manage the risks posed by disinformation, misinformation and influence operations, such as the ones carried out by Russia. Moreover, the council calls on the EU to build and leverage the digital capacities of the EU member states. The council’s report thus advocates EU-wide knowledge sharing where states that have developed advanced digital capacities (e.g., big data analysis) help other states develop similar capacities.

The EU’s approach to digital diplomacy is also rooted in the argument that human rights include digital rights. For instance, EU citizens have basic digital rights such as accessing accurate information online or partaking in a safe and inclusive online environment where different opinions may be expressed. The Council calls on the EU to play a major part in “future digital transitions” or to take a more active role in shaping digital societies.    

Finally, the Council adopts a tailored approach to digital diplomacy. The policy report calls on the EU to recognize that different states have undergone different processes of digitalization. Thus, the French digital society is not identical to the Spanish digital society. The Council’s report underlines the importance of assessing the digital strengths and weaknesses of different states and tailoring digital solutions that address each state’s weaknesses.

In addition, the policy report refers to EU cyber diplomacy. Specific goals include regulating digital spaces through collaborations with partner states, while also leading joint diplomatic efforts in multilateral forums such as the ITU or the OSCE. More importantly, the Council urges the EU to form alliances of states that can jointly advance the regulation of digital spaces. Notably, the Council also suggests that the EU can leverage existing alliances to this end including NATO or G7. Cyber regulation and cyber accords are also depicted in the report as part of an attempt to safeguard the universal human rights of EU citizens.

One part of the policy report refers to the digital economy stating that this economy can only flourish if individuals trust online platforms, trust the information they access and trust that their data will be used properly. Here, the EU’s “human centric” approach is applied to those individuals whose financial prosperity rests on the digital economy. In order to develop a safe digital economy, the Council calls on the EU to engage in dialogue with tech companies, governments and civil society organizations who all shape the digital economy. To this end, the EU has announced that it will open a dedicated office in San Francisco which shall serve as a global center for digital diplomacy and innovation. Thus like Denmark, the EU plans to establish a diplomatic presence near Silicon Valley charged with managing ties with tech companies.     

Although the policy report clearly articulates the EU’s digital visions, there are two glaring omissions. The first is that regulating digital spaces, and creating a safe and inclusive global internet, requires solutions that address the needs and concerns of many countries. A true digital vision must seek to bring to the negotiating table not only EU states and “like-minded” states but also Russia, China, India and Saudi Arabia. Digital regulation of “Western” digital spaces will only further fragment the internet into national “splinternets”. Likewise, there is a need to define the digital rights of all individuals, even those living in autocratic states. This is the true challenge that awaits those diplomats hoping to create a normative and legal framework that will regulate the digital realm.

A second omission is that the report does not imagine how additional diplomatic institutions and organizations may help advance the EU’s digital and cyber diplomacy goals. One such organization is the Commonwealth of Nations, which includes many African states, or the African Union. Collaborating with these organizations will help advance a global framework for regulating digital spaces while paying specific attention to regions in which Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare is flourishing. The same is true of cultural organizations such as UNESCO. Many important digital issues are addressed in cultural forums such as UNESCO including regulating the use of innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that the Council’s report makes little reference to future digital challenges. A truly comprehensive approach to digital and cyber diplomacy must include an analysis of the future digital landscape, while formulating policies that address future challenges and opportunities. Hybrid warfare for instance, may be much more potent in the Metaverse than it is on social media. The EU must prepare today for the digital risks and vulnerabilities of tomorrow. 

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