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Overcoming National Interests in CFSP

Written by Nathan van der Heyden

In the first part of this article, I discussed why the EU could strongly benefit from techplomacy. The term represents the idea that strong diplomatic ties should be established between the EU and Big Tech (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, etc.). While some individual countries, such as France with its Ambassador for Cyberdiplomacy, or Denmark’s world first Tech Ambassador, have understood the need for increased communication with these important global actors, I argued in the previous article that the EU was still vastly underutilizing its potential influence with Big Tech. In this one, I will explain why that might be.

The Issue with Common Foreign Policy

Let’s imagine a small medieval town. A river runs in the middle of the town and it is regularly threatened by a raiding horde of barbarians. The citizens of this democratic town gather once a year to decide where the budget should end up. Should we invest in better defence to protect the villagers on the outskirts of the town from raids? Or should we build better protection so that when inevitable floodings occur the houses near the river are better protected?

Inevitably, the villagers from the outskirts would like to build a big wall (some trends never change) while the ones living by the river would really appreciate a solid embankment. They argue endlessly over which is the most pressing issue and end up making no actual commitment to either.

Well it’s not especially easier for the EU when it tries to devise common foreign policy goal. Just like the small medieval town, aggregated and divergent interests introduce great dissonance into EU foreign policy.

Now let’s envision another situation: Imagine you are elected by the Greek electorate to the European Parliament on the promise you will do whatever it takes to get more funding to better handle massive immigration. Even though you’re a European representative, you are politically inclined, for electoral reasons, to serve Greece’s interests. When the Lithuanian representative argues we should really do something about Russia, all you’re thinking about is all of these euros would be better allocated in handling immigration.

As long as Lithuania doesn’t care about immigration as much as Greece and Greece doesn’t care about Russia in the same way Baltic states do, a common foreign policy can’t possibly be enacted in any meaningful way.

For the EU to successfully and collectively influence the issues that matter to it, EU representatives and their respective member states have to transcend their nationality.

But whereas the divisiveness of the EU can be understood as a weakness, some scholars argue that this is the EU’s strength. EU specialist Mai’a Cross argues that it is actually the plurality of Europe that inspires and gives it a reputation as a “smart power”. She argues that the General Strategy proposes both short-term realistic goals and idealistic utopian targets that the EU must aim for, with the two of them together resulting in a doctrine of ‘principled pragmatism’ (Cross, 2016). It is only because of this idealism, and these principles, that the EU manages to create the necessary political will behind any common foreign policy. In other words, Greece does not have to care about Russia as much as the Baltic States, but Greece and Lithuania should care about European idealism.

However, at this point you may be wondering: that all sounds good but the internet is not a geographically-sensitive issue. It concerns almost everyone, everywhere, more or less equally. There’s no reason any one Member-State should feel particularly concerned or unconcerned by the growing power of Big Tech. Well, I agree with you. There is ample cause for EU member states to create a common foreign policy to handle this issue. Then why are they still not doing it?

Comparative Advantage, or why being selfish is more advantageous in the short term

Let’s go back to the village and now imagine a second village, also threatened by the same barbarian raids. While both are quite interested in being defended from these raids, for some reason they refuse to cooperate and join forces to defeat the barbarians once and for all. As long as their walls and defences are better than those of their neighbours, the barbarians will always attack the neighbours.

Sadly, member states have not advanced past the medieval town thinking on this particular subject. Certain scholars argue that the EU doesn’t have the regulatory tools to promote its own foreign policy on these subjects. That can be quickly disproven through reference to the Treaty of Lisbon. “The High Representative (...) is responsible for the EU’s common foreign and security policy” (Treaty of Lisbon, 2009). Article 21 clearly states that member states should mutually support each other, actively follow European external policies and avoid working against the interest of the Union

However, this requires a coherent strategy to be developed at the EU level. This is no easy task as most of these decisions require unanimity, which is obviously difficult when there are so many diverse member-states interests to accommodate on such a complex topic.

Certainly, this would not be impossible. Member states relinquished another significant pillar of state sovereignty when they agreed to tie their economies together through the Euro and the European Central Bank. If they did agreed to pool their power together then, why not now? In both cases, they would relinquish a certain amount of control over their own policy in exchange for more pressure, as a group, on other global actors.

Simply put, this is a very different situation. EU scholar Dieter Mahncke argues that the instigation of the Euro benefited both from a more hopeful and popular outlook in terms of the EU's added value as well as more rapid and attributable results than a common foreign policy could deliver. In the case of a CFSP, the need for it does not appear as pressing and the dominant actors are not willing to sacrifice their national interests for long term gains (Mahncke, 2014).

But how does all this relate to Big Techplomacy, you might ask?

Well, as you may have guessed the dynamics are far from being dissimilar to the villages described earlier. Member states still seem to be too tightly attached to their own national identities and interests, especially in times of populism and identity crises. Even though more than half the foreign investment in Silicon Valley comes from EU countries, this investment is fractured and is not providing the EU with the leverage it should have.

In other words, almost all European countries have their own systems in place to make the best of their national connections in Silicon Valley and are not willing to give it up in order to create a common initiative.

For example, Germany’s innovation centre tries to bring the latest technological developments back to the motherland in time for its companies to have this comparative advantage over its European neighbours. Italy functions with the Bay Area consul which works as an unofficial tech ambassador. CzechInvest is a governmental investment agency which tends to favour Czech business in the area with financial and networking support. Scandinavian countries have pooled resources together to create the Nordic Innovation House (hereafter “NIH”) which also provides funding, networking and support for start-ups which work with their home countries.

The EU could draw inspiration from the Nordic Innovation House for its own representation in the Bay Area. Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark decided in 2014 to join their innovation centres together in a bid to encourage the development of key technologies such as clean energy with an increased financial weight. Today, while all NIH partners have specific national mandates, they cooperate constantly on common projects directed towards their long-term goal of sustainable technological growth. This increased cooperation has allowed Nordic countries to undertake projects that were previously out of their financial reach and cooperate with larger companies that previously could have snubbed their smaller markets.

These measures do not need to be part of a hypothetical common foreign policy which would be extremely difficult to unanimously agree on. The first step to getting closer with Big Tech is simply to open clear diplomatic communications channel.

- Will you allow our app in the EU if we track users’ data and sell it to politicians?
- No.
- Thank you!

And, in fact, this can be done by order of the High Representative directly. Such a decision would circumvent most of the hurdles, and especially the unanimity rule, that creating a common foreign policy would pose. The High Representative actually has quite a bit of power when it comes to diplomacy. Engaging in a dialogue and trying to influence Big Tech in a value-laden direction could lead to increased protection for EU citizens. It would also allow for a better mutual understanding.

This doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out on the first day. Tech is always going to be a problematic regulatory subject because it evolves really quickly. In a recent interview, former Danish Tech Ambassador Casper Klynge jokingly said that explaining GDPR was half his job.

All jokes aside, the impact of tech companies on the lives of EU citizens is enormous and the hard work of making sure that their products contribute rather than undermine EU interests, such as our well-being and the solidity of our political system, is well worth it.

Why this matters a lot

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is already an initiative in the right direction. This innovation centre focused on digital innovation has become the informal basis for meetings and cooperation between representatives of member states. During those meetings, member states’ representatives try to create a European network and, at times, pool resources together for major projects. This is the closest thing to an official organization that can be the designated point of contact that the EU has to offer. This organization could greatly benefit both from EU support but also, more importantly, from the full backing of individual member states.

Sure, it means some short-term losses. Germany might not get a key technological advantage over France. Czech entrepreneurs might not receive the particular attention that they would get today. But the potential benefits not only strongly outweigh those losses, they’re also vital for the survival and prosperity of European society taken as a whole.

This might sound like an overstatement but I strongly believe that this is a necessity for the peaceful continuity of western democracy as we know it. We have seen during the Brexit vote and Trump’s 2016 campaign the influence social media has on democracy. The potential for public manipulation, fake news and government surveillance is unfathomable and we’re only starting to grasp the full extent of it. The internet is a civilization-defining invention. The EU is in a unique position to exert its influence on it and protect its citizens and it’s not doing nearly as much as it should.

On March 27 2019, the EU increased its support of the EIT initiative, which is certainly a step in the right direction. It seems however, that even with increased backing, the EIT still does not have the resources to have more than two offices around the world (Israel and Silicon Valley) and its projects are still conducted in parallel with member states rather than as part of a true multinational initiative (European institute of Innovation and Technology, 2020).

In the words of Louis Michel, at the time the Development Commissioner: “Together we can truly shape a more just and equitable world, and thus influence the fate of the world. And because we can, we must.” (Michel, 2006).



- Cross, M. K. (2016, October 10). The EU Global Strategy and diplomacy.

- The Treaty of Lisbon. (2009, December 1)

- European Institute of Innovation and Technology. (2020, January 21). Global outreach

- European Commission - Louis Michel - Press Release, Brussels, (2006)

- Mahncke, D. (2011). Post-modern diplomacy: Can EU foreign policy make a difference in world politics. New Approaches to EU Foreign Policy, 163-177

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