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Commentary | 10 September 2020

The EU’s approach to 5G and the reshaping of transatlantic relations

Image of Eline Chivot

Eline Chivot |Senior policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation

Image of Raquel Jorge-Ricart

Raquel Jorge-Ricart |Fulbright Fellow, Elliott School of International Affairs and member of the YGLN

Emerging technologies EU Transatlantic relations YGLN YGLN

Lagging in the global technological race and caught between a U.S.-China rivalry, the European Union has been working to develop its own capacities in a number of key emerging technologies such as cybersecurity, AI, quantum computing, and, not least of all, 5G. This next-generation wireless standard – by enabling faster, more responsive, and highly flexible connectivity – will be one of the pillars of the future digital economy. But this critical technology faces fraught geopolitical challenges that deserve a broadly coordinated policy.

The EU’s 5G toolbox published earlier this year recognises that 5G networks are the “future backbone of our increasingly digitalised economies and societies.” The toolbox offers recommended measures for an EU coordinated approach to secure 5G networks. It lays out a framework of technical and strategic measures, as well as risk mitigation plans, notably guiding member states in their assessment of high-risk third-party suppliers, such as the China-backed telecom equipment juggernaut Huawei. However, the EU’s geopolitical vision on 5G networks faces divergences from within. These member-level differences need to be addressed in order to not only guarantee the EU’s objectives in this matter but also to achieve a comprehensive reshaping of the EU’s relationships with like-minded partners in order to maintain international stability on such an important issue.

5G in the EU, à géométrie variable

At the heart of concerns around 5G is the interference by foreign states—particularly China—in companies providing 5G equipment in a way that presents an immediate security threat or unfairly skews the market for communications long-term. In October 2019, a report by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity’s (ENISA) Cooperation Group stated that “threats posed by states or state-backed actors are perceived to be of highest relevance” for the 5G system, that in turn increase the severity and the “number of attack paths that could be exploited by threat actors (…) to perform attacks against EU Member States’ telecommunications networks.” While the report did not single out any country, there are increasing concerns in Europe and elsewhere over the rise of Huawei as a global tech giant and its growing market share in high-performing, low-cost radio equipment.

This may jeopardise the technological autonomy of Western economies—research has already shown how unfair Chinese support has undermined global innovation in the telecom equipment industry. Concerns have been raised by most Five Eyes member countries, which have banned or restricted Huawei’s equipment in 5G networks because of objections that it is not secure and subject to hacking or spying. The US government has also been rallying EU countries and the UK around the need for vigilance and a firm stance towards China more broadly, calling on them to limit or stop the involvement of Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE, and Hikvision into their domestic networks.

While EU Member States have reported that they comply with most of the toolbox’s measures, few countries have made a final decision on the role of high-risk vendors. France is phasing out Huawei mobile networks by granting temporary authorisations for the 5G equipment Huawei provides telecom operators. German policymakers, however, are strongly divided in terms of what should be prioritised when deciding on the Chinese company’s presence: the economy or foreign, security, and cyber issues. Sweden and Estonia have opted for a case-by-case approach to Chinese firms that involve security services, and Spain has started to reduce the Huawei kit for its core 5G network while maintaining it for the peripheral radio equipment. Italy has not decided yet due to delays in the legislative process, while Romania and Poland are siding with the United States’ approach through formal bilateral agreements.

Part of the challenge lies in achieving high-performance interoperability with existing 4G networks built with Huawei or ZTE equipment. Already cash-strapped private wireless operators face an expensive proposition if they are to transition to more trustworthy gear and are unable to capture many of the broader security benefits of a more diverse wireless equipment market. Stronger central policies are needed to help overcome these externalities.

How to reshape 5G’s transatlantic relations

Divided, the EU risks missing the chance to leverage its strong position in wireless innovation (by some measures, the EU has more core 5G patents than China and the United States combined). Stronger policy at the EU-level by the Commission could encourage EU telecom leaders Ericsson and Nokia to continue their strong record of innovation as wireless architectures continue to transition to a more software-centric future. EU divergences may also have implications on transatlantic relations, which have suffered some setbacks in recent years in trade, competition policy, privacy agreements, and diplomatic relations.

The EU should work towards a more consolidated approach and agreement among EU countries to accelerate the deployment and adoption of 5G, mitigate the risks to 5G telecommunications networks posed by certain suppliers, and enable a stronger response to China’s growing technological dominance. To start with, the EU should build on its existing international cooperation mechanism on 5G with like-minded countries, to reach a global consensus on 5G vision, standards, and spectrum requirements.

As a security partnership, NATO could potentially serve as a forum for further collaboration on security standards between the EU and the United States. For instance, the Alliance could refine its role in cybersecurity protection, defence, and resilience. The EU is still searching for a common certification strategy to prevent backdoors—hidden entry points for attacking or spying—which may affect 5G hardware. This strategy might help the EU to surpass current national-based approaches, as well as to reshore its internal production capabilities and critical infrastructures’ resilience and could strengthen standards-setting collaboration within NATO regarding the impacts of cybersecurity on 5G networks.

The EU, the United States, and like-minded partners (such as Japan) should renew their dialogue on the implications of state behaviour norms in cyberspace for the protection and resilience of 5G networks. China has become highly active in the multilateral arena by proposing principles regarding the respect for cyber sovereignty and the shaping of new AI-related uses in line with its Belt and Road Initiative and its Digital Silk Road. This may have significant implications on the 5G-driven connectivity of AI applications. A common transatlantic position is therefore sorely needed to tip the balance towards an open, fair, secure, and stable data governance system. Such a “common” position does not refer to similar policies and regulations but would be one through which all partners can cooperate on critical infrastructure connectivity while respecting common values and fundamental rights.

With regards to the digital economy, both allies can mutually reinforce each other’s assets. The EU should work on joint technology initiatives with the US and other partners, as well as pool resources in the many areas that are mutually beneficial. In turn, the EU could use this collaboration as a two-way street, to boost its digital credentials in areas where it has incumbent strengths. The US, which has no major 5G wireless equipment provider, will continue to largely rely on the European companies Ericsson and Nokia but is aiming to accelerate alternatives for the future. These two European firms, which remain the second and third largest suppliers in the race for 5G, are also entering deals with Canada’s largest telecoms companies in order to build their 5G networks.

The importance of 5G systems has taken on a geopolitical dimension. Given its importance as a national security asset and an economic driver, current strategies and principles cannot be limited to national agendas. International stability—security, peace, economy, and respect for human rights—relies on both the effectiveness and long-term readiness of multilateral negotiations. Opening up a deep transatlantic discussion on the role of 5G will be essential to ensure mutually beneficial cooperation. In turn, this will contribute to subsequent ways of dealing with models that might leave Western regulatory standards out of the shaping of a fair and safe technological near-future.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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