Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on European digital sovereignty on the occasion of the opening of the Smart Country Convention of the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom)

27.10.2020 - Speech

In the past, warlords once plundered the archives of defeated opponents after waging successful campaigns. They helped themselves to title deeds and state secrets.

After all, states have always fought over data, and dominion over knowledge has always meant power – this isn’t a terribly new insight.

Today, it no longer takes armies and wars to purloin foreign archives. All it takes is a few resourceful hackers to suck mountains of data from other governments’ servers within seconds – or for much more dangerous cyber attacks and manipulation in all digital areas. This is an issue that we are having to deal with increasingly frequently on the international stage.

The digital transformation has also transformed global politics – and this process is set to continue. Today, we’re witnessing a new contest, namely the battle for digital dominance. And the COVID-19 pandemic has given this battle another significant boost.

At the centre of this struggle for bits and bytes is the rivalry between the two digital superpowers China and the US. Both are competing for technological domination and are throwing up nothing other than virtual walls. This is something that we keep on having to grapple with. The digital sphere is threatening to split into a US and a Chinese tech sphere.

And we need to point out, because this is currently preoccupying many people, that the results of the presidential election in the US in a few days’ time will not fundamentally change this – regardless of the outcome.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This means that we Europeans have a decision to make. And I say in all candour that I consider neither the Chinese nor the US digital model to be an option.

After all, the former places progress made in the digital transformation also at the service of state surveillance and repression.

In the latter model, the limits of what is permitted are, in my opinion, all too often determined by what is technologically possible and economically profitable. And nothing else matters. The fact that companies such as Facebook and Twitter are themselves now calling for clearer rules speaks for itself. And the most recent action on the part of the US antitrust authorities against Google shows just where the difficulties of the US model seem to lie.

That’s why I firmly believe that Germany and Europe must go their own digital way – and defend their values and interests also in the digital arena. The European countries alone are too small for this – that’s why we’re joining forces within the European Union. I see no meaningful alternative to this. This European Union needs its own digital model – it needs digital sovereignty.

I believe that three principles are key here:

Firstly, European digital sovereignty seeks to develop Europe’s own digital capabilities. Not everywhere, and not at any price. But we must have key technologies at our fingertips. Only then will we create alternatives and options for ourselves – without ruling out other providers from the outset. We’re talking about achieving sovereignty under our own steam and not by issuing bans.

Secondly, the European digital model is based on openness, trust and values. At its very core are human dignity, freedom of opinion and social justice. The digital transformation must benefit people – profit maximisation and what is technically possible alone cannot be the benchmark for us. We’re also not looking to build a digital Fortress Europe. Cooperation and connectivity remain our basic principles – not isolationism or protectionism. We’re currently experiencing these trends far too often in the world. A digitally sovereign Europe is seeking to reach out to like-minded partners around the world.

Thirdly, we need to take a fresh look at the issue of regulation and security. Our digital infrastructure must be one thing above all else, namely trustworthy. This is what users expect and, above all, this also benefits the economic development prospects of our companies. What is more, we need to strengthen our defences against cyber attacks – which we’re seeing more and more frequently – and against attempts to exercise influence in the digital domain at all levels, also in the political realm. The dangers for our democracies have long since become real – the hacker attack against the Bundestag, for example, demonstrated this, and we’re seeing it at work in the US election campaign right now.

I’m therefore delighted that we in Germany were pioneers in the fight against targeted manipulation, and also against hate crime on the internet. Even large platforms such as Facebook are now following suit, for example with respect to antisemitic hate speech and disinformation in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My view of Europe is therefore much more optimistic today than it was just a few years ago. We have taken many steps toward greater digital sovereignty – also thanks to the innovative strength demonstrated by you, the digital economy. But we must not stop here now.

The EU has demonstrated its regulatory strength also in the digital domain. With its General Data Protection Regulation, which was the subject of much debate, it has set the most stringent global standards for data protection – thereby presenting a successful alternative to the US and, above all, Chinese models. But we need to turn the EU regulator even more into a player that is capable of getting stuck in on the digital playing field. After all, referees rarely leave the pitch as winners. Sovereignty through regulation is good and sometimes necessary, but sovereignty through ability is much better and is what we should actually be striving for.

That’s why we’re committing a great deal of money to this cause, especially in times of crisis. The new EU budget and the Recovery Fund launched at the beginning of our Presidency of the Council of the European Union together provide 200 billion euro for the digital transformation – particularly for the development of key technologies such as artificial intelligence, block chain and quantum computers. Your companies and, of course, the scientific community will stand to benefit from this. Germany is already a country that can play a role in this area, for example as a start-up hub. But I believe we can do much more.

We’re also working on interoperable European data spaces that are accessible to a wide range of technologies. This month, 25 EU member states joined forces in the European Cloud Federation to draft a rulebook for a European cloud. Moreover, the Franco-German cloud project GAIA-X now boasts 350 participating companies, organisations and governments. This is thanks to the close cooperation between politics and business in this field. And we must continue down this path.

But European data not only needs secure clouds, but above all a reliable critical infrastructure. This is about the security of each and every one of us – our data, our communications and, ultimately, our democratic processes. That’s why price alone must not be the deciding factor in forward-looking investments. Price will always be a factor no matter what. With the IT Security Act, we will therefore also subject the trustworthiness of companies developing 5G networks in Germany to scrutiny.

Moreover, ladies and gentlemen, European companies in particular can benefit from this thanks to their high standards. This is not a question of preferential treatment, but is nothing less than about enforcing fair and equal rules for everyone. And the fact that Europe calls for and enforces this is something that everyone, both to the West and to the East, will have to get used to.

At the end of the day, Europe has also strengthened its resilience to cyber attacks and the exertion of digital influence. This year, for the first time in the history of the EU, we imposed sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for cyber attacks in Europe. The message we’re sending is clear, namely we’re protecting our democratic institutions and protecting our data in the digital world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

European digital sovereignty may require your companies to go the extra mile in the short term. But in the long term, it opens up many opportunities for Germany’s digital economy and industry also internationally.

Your companies benefit from a secure digital infrastructure that protects your data and intellectual property.

Greater public investment in research, development and innovation will strengthen your competitiveness – and we’re already going down this path.

Moreover, the German and European digital economy can gain the edge internationally with the key feature of the European digital model – trust. After all, just as in the real economy, it’s not just the price that counts in the digital world – but trust in providers and locations is also vital.

And we need the support of digital companies in Europe not only for European digital sovereignty. The same is true of the digitalisation of public administration.

At the Federal Foreign Office today, 150 years of tradition of German ministerial administration and diplomacy – memos, initials and paper files – are joining hands with Twitter, Instagram and – at the latest since coronavirus – also with a swathe of video conferences and workstations at home.

Let me offer you just three examples that show where we stand and where we need further support in the future:

In the spring, we brought over 200,000 Germans and Europeans stranded abroad because of the COVID-19 pandemic back home within a very short space of time. This was a logistical feat the likes of which had never been seen in 150 years of the Federal Foreign Office. And this feat would have been impossible were it not for a software solution that a German IT company set up in cooperation with us pretty much overnight, which was put in place and worked excellently.

With social media monitoring tools, we’re observing the discussions and issues in social media today that will pop up on the timelines of tomorrow. The technology for this also hails from European companies – because stringent ethical and legal standards are particularly important for such technologies.

Furthermore, we’re already harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to detect crises – and, unfortunately, there are far too many such crises in the world – from an earlier stage. After all, our policy approach on the international stage is a preventive one. We want the UN Security Council, of which we are currently a member, not always to deal with crises only after shots have already been fired, bombs have fallen and the first casualties have been registered – but earlier and in a preventive manner. We have to identify in advance where crises arise and help to ensure that no shots are fired and no bombs are dropped. My colleagues are combining publicly available data with our internal analyses to this end. The Federal Foreign Office has developed the necessary digital tools in cooperation with German companies. What is more, AI continues to be a huge growth market throughout the federal administration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Despite the new international competition for data, knowledge and technology, unlike in the past, we at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin no longer have to worry about our archive cellars being looted. Instead, our Political Archive has recently digitised over 18 million pages of files and is set to publish them online – transparently for all members of the public.

European digital sovereignty combines precisely such democratic transparency with human-centred development, entrepreneurial freedom and the necessary protection of our values and interests.

Only in this way will we be able to make Europe able to hold its own in the geostrategic great-power rivalry between the US, Russia and China. If we want to play a role in this field and not become the plaything of others, then we in Europe need greater sovereignty. And we will only manage this through the European Union. Digital sovereignty will be a key part of this sovereignty. This is a political necessity, but, above all, it is also a huge opportunity because it creates enormous economic potential.

And I’d be delighted and extremely grateful if you and your companies would be our partners on this path that we have embarked upon and which we intend to continue to tread.

Thank you very much.


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