European Digital Sovereignty”: Successfully Navigating Between the “Brussels Effect” and Europe’s Quest for Strategic Autonomy

Article Source: Multidisciplinary Institute on Artificial Intelligence/Grenoble Alpes Data Institute, e-book, 2020
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“European digital sovereignty” encompasses regulatory and strategic concerns. The European Union (EU) is the most powerful global actor in digital regulation, though its power is not unlimited.


Policy Relevance:

The EU should avoid protectionism. Data localization may be needed to protect privacy.


Key Takeaways:
  • European politicians often talk about "digital sovereignty," but the term "sovereignty" itself is equivocal and confusing; "digital sovereignty" encompasses many different political demands.
  • Sovereignty has two main meanings, the first referring to a political entity's sovereignty as a regulatory power, and the second to strategic autonomy, the ability to act without being restricted by outside forces or entities.
  • Some posit that the European Union (EU) is powerless, but this is untrue: the EU is the most powerful global actor in digital regulation, largely due to the "Brussels Effect."
    • Non-EU nations comply with EU rules to benefit from trade with Europe’s single market.
    • The EU presents itself as supporting rules with a global appeal.
  • Sources of limits on what the EU can or will regulate include:
    • Disagreements among EU Member states.
    • Legal obstacles, such as exemptions from data protection regulation intended to protect national security.
    • Conflict of laws and the need for international cooperation.
  • Europe should distinguish between protectionist measures and regulations that advance legitimate goals such as cybersecurity or privacy.
  • Some policymakers call for data localization and for European data to be stored and processed in Europe, but data localization measures may threaten a free, open Internet.
    • Data localization may be motivated by real privacy concerns.
    • Data localization may be misused to favor local business interests, a form of protectionism.
    • Restrictions on transnational data flows should be proportionate to the risk.
  • Europeans criticize the Chinese model of the Internet, based on firewalls, surveillance, and control, and Europe should avoid similar policies.



Théodore Christakis

About Theodore Christakis

Théodore Christakis is Professor of International and European Law at the Université Grenoble Alpes. Additionally, he is the Director of the Centre for International Security and European Studies (CESICE) and Co-Director of the Grenoble Alpes Data Institute. Professor Christakis’ research and teaching interests include international security law, international protection of human rights, cyber security law and data protection, and artificial intelligence.

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