European technological sovereignty: too many speeches, too little action

The European Commissioner for Internal Market recently mentioned the imperative of sovereignty in several European media - a message that one can only approve but that has been well known for a long time. It needs now to be followed by concrete action demonstrating that Europe has wakened up to the challenges posed by the ever-growing geopolitical role of technology. Today, we are far, very far from it.

Take supercomputers: the European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking is funded with more than one billion Euro for the 2018-2026 period but brings together... 32 countries: the outcome can only be diluted through such complexity. Remember, Airbus was initially only a three-party agreement (France, Germany, United Kingdom) and no attempts were made at that time to turn other European countries into aerospace powers.

Europeans love bold plans and announcements - but we are sleeping when the world is accelerating: the continent shows absolutely no reaction when British company ARM, a global leader for chip design and engineering, is about to be acquired by California-based Nvidia. Europeans seem not to grasp the critical importance of semiconductors and do not require from the number 1 chipmaker TSMC from Taiwan to set up a manufacturing unit in Europe like the United States just did. Where is the real political will behind the tough words? As for the industrial cloud, part of almost every speech these days, public authorities on both national and European level appear in reality to be mainly subsidizing foreign solutions: directly, when France sets up a Health Data Hub and entrusts it to Microsoft; and indirectly, when the government guarantees loans worth 5 billion Euro to Renault with the approval of the European Commission ... and just a couple of weeks later, the same automaker signs a major contract with Google Cloud for the industrial data of all its 22 plants.

The end of naivety, really?

Another priority identified by Commissioner Breton is to make Europe a major player in low orbit satellite constellations. We can only be aghast: Europe has gladly ignored the opportunity of OneWeb, a pioneer in this field and above all owners of precious frequencies. In July, the group, facing bankruptcy, was saved by…. Her Majesty’s Government and Indian major Bharti. Despite Airbus being the manufacturer of OneWeb’s satellites through a joint venture in Florida and even owning 8% of the constellation. It remains to be seen how many billions Europe will waste to achieve the same result, and be late in the game.

Take the European Defence Fund: an absolutely essential endeavor but crippled because of two shortcomings: a lack of resources and missing operational agility. First, we just saw its budget lowered from 13 billion to 7 billion Euros, to be spent over … seven years. Operationally, there is this persistent bureaucratic mantra of awarding funds only to consortia, of at least three countries, a logic that most market players see as going against efficiency and technological excellence. The first projects announced in July are a patchwork of more or less interesting projects – with each country quietly wining its tender and the money that goes with it.

When Thierry Breton speaks of the sovereignty imperative, let us not forget that the latter is above all political and not simply a budgetary issue. The announcements of the EU reflect an obsession with money and spending, where instead we need a clear strategy and impactful results. Since 1984, a whopping 200 billion euros (!) were spent through eight consecutive European research programs: did Europe manage in these 35 years to become a technological leader with similar breakthroughs as the American Darpa did with only 50 billion euros over 60 years? Have these huge spendings created world leaders in Artificial Intelligence, energy storage, biotechnology, or just even IT? Horizon Europe, the 9th European R&D program is set at 76 billion euros for 2021-2028 but still lacks clear priorities, agility, and precise measures of success.

We continue to believe in Europe’s capabilities: in this century where innovation shapes our societies, the continent can become the power that puts science and technology at the service of the people, of the planet, and of economic prosperity. But this requires that politicians and citizens regain control of their administrations which have bureaucratized research, and be highly strategic in shaping the world of tomorrow instead of fighting the battles of yesterday. Only then can Europe truly become the Europe of concrete and impactful projects envisioned by Jean Monnet, and not that of empty speeches.

André Loesekrug-Pietri Executive Director of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI), the European Darpa Technology entrepreneur, former special advisor to the French Defence Minister