“European digital sovereignty is long overdue”

04.12.2019 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talks to Die Zeit weekly newspaper

If you had to deliver a prognosis, would you say that Huawei, the Chinese provider of communications technology, should be allowed to help build Germany’s new mobile internet standard, the 5G network?

At least not to the extent that some people are proposing today.

What is to be said against giving Huawei a greater role?

It’s the magnitude of the problem. This is not about a single corporation. Rather, it’s about the fundamental question of what requirements we set for companies that build or operate critical infrastructure in Germany. 5G will take us to a whole new level of digitisation. With this new mobile communications standard, digital technology will even more deeply permeate our daily lives. Current safety regulations are simply not sufficient for warding off possible foreign interference, considering the changes this technology brings with it.

What forms could such interference take?

Just think, for example, of medical technology, power plants, autonomous vehicles, or the interlinking of industrial production. All that will operate via 5G. Those who provide hardware and software can therefore also do substantial damage. We mustn’t be naive. This is not just about espionage, but potentially also about sabotage.

What does that mean?

Our focus must always be on keeping our digital infrastructure secure. Work is underway on a new catalogue of technological security requirements. However, in my view, we must absolutely also do a political evaluation of trustworthiness.

So you have doubts as to whether Huawei can be trusted?

I would like to have the opportunity to examine its trustworthiness. This applies as much to Huawei as it does to every other firm having expressed an interest in expanding the 5G network.

Huawei says, “we can be trusted, we don’t spy.”

The question is which legal regulations a company must abide by. There must be an examination of whether companies are legally bound to hand over to their national authorities information and data that need to be protected. In China, with Huawei, that’s the case. So we need to take a very close look.

Is this about taking a close look, or barring access?

If the examination concludes that Germany’s security interests are threatened, then the company in question must be excluded from providing critical core components from the outset.

Economic Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier argues that the Americans spy, too, and that one shouldn’t be so quick to exclude Huawei.

The legal environment in the United States is of course entirely different. There, companies can take legal action to keep government authorities from gaining access to their data. Tech companies in the US have already taken their cases all the way to the Supreme Court in defence of their customers’ data.

If the Chinese state has access to data, then doesn’t that predetermine the outcome of such an examination?

In principle, of course, every country is free to change its laws and put up barriers to the misuse of data. Our examination should however always focus on the question of whether or not something poses a threat to our digital infrastructure. We must not take any risks.

Who would conduct such an examination?

Because this is a political issue, it should be a politically authorised body. The intelligence services and regulatory authorities could provide advice. To enable this, legislation needs to be amended, and we’re short on time. The expansion of networks must not create any faits accomplis before the Bundestag reaches a decision.

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs sees things differently. Why?

Because there are other interests – and I think that’s legitimate. Huawei is a competitive provider, and of course everyone would like networks to be expanded in a rapid and cost-efficient way. But there must be a proper balance between economic and security policy interests.

So are you saying that security trumps economic prosperity?

On the contrary – with 5G, the issue of security takes on a whole new meaning. 5G will be the neural system of our digital society and economy. If we take security risks today in an effort to keep costs down, we will pay a very high price later on.


Because we would be creating economic dependencies that harm the free market. For German companies, it is extremely important that they keep their data safe, so that they can remain globally competitive.

In the end, the German Government will need to agree on a common position. What are the Chancellor’s views on this?

You would need to ask her yourself. I for one hope that in the next few weeks we can put together a bill.

The Chinese are saying that, in truth, there is an attempt to steer contracts towards European companies.

That would be the result of such a decision, but not its aim. Yet it is completely obvious that we Europeans need to do a better job of promoting our digital sovereignty. This is not about setting up a European alternative to Facebook, but rather about networks, nodes and cloud storage. When it comes to an issue as important as protecting digital infrastructure, we should define and protect our own interests.

Will that also be the case for other parts of the economy? Is it, for example, in line with European values when Volkswagen produces cars in Xinjiang Province, despite reports about how the local Uighur Muslim minority is being supressed there?

Human rights are non-negotiable and universally valid. On this topic, we do not mince words in our regular talks with the Chinese side. If hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being held in camps, no company can close its eyes to this. Transparency is needed now, and there must be independent access to the region, including for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is my impression that companies, for their part, are also asking themselves how appropriate their respective engagement is. Just as, after the Turkish army’s military offensive in Syria, Volkswagen asked itself whether it is legitimate to build – or not build – a large factory in Turkey.

Those opposing a strict examination of Huawei are saying that too aggressive action vis-à-vis the Chinese on the part of the German Government will cause Beijing to force German companies out of the Chinese market.

That argument is raised time and again when decisions are called for that China may not like. We cannot, however, let ourselves be put under pressure when we need to do the right thing to protect our interests.

Is that because you think it’s a price we will simply have to pay, or because the Chinese are bluffing?

The main priority of China’s leadership is promoting its country’s prosperity. And that won’t work if they pull up the drawbridge.

Are we too dependent on China?

This is not just about China. On the issue of the digital transformation, there are two opposing poles. On the one hand, there is Silicon Valley, which is exclusively focused on maximising profits. On the other hand, there is the Chinese model, with intrinsic political dependencies. The time is long overdue for Europe to have its own strategy for digital sovereignty.

Interview conducted by Marc Brost and Mark Schieritz



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