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The Great Firewall of Europe

The Great Firewall of Europe

This issue is about statecraft, long-term strategy and will: Wille zur Macht.

Incidentally, it is also about EU policies in trade, defence, democracy, industrial strategy, cybersecurity and digital, the Security Union, counter-terrorism and finance.

Europe’s slowness and apparent inability to take strong action to protect its interests has long been decried by stakeholders on all sides. Yet, at the conclusion of Juncker’s term (last #SOTEU 12/9), we have the means to finally protect Europe and start asserting ourselves as a world power. That is, if we manage to get the political understanding and will to wield what is at our disposal. We now have the tools. This is about a cluster of policies coming together. Cybersecurity is but one piece of the puzzle.

The Great Firewall” emerged as a European idea in 2011, taking inspiration from China. But the year that everyone will remember is 2010: the year Google left China and the West woke up to the Middle Kingdom. China’s “Great Firewall” golden project is primarily about censorship, the way the West sees it. Yet its dimensions are wider and broader:

  • An industrial policy: China does not just keep out (parts of) the global internet, but created replacements (Google = Baidu, Twitter = Weibo, Facebook = Renren, Youtube = Youku)
  • It created an internet “with Chinese characteristics”
  • It created a cocoon for boosting its digital ecosystem
  • It is protection from “fake news” - what the regime considers as such

If any of these sound familiar to you that is because Europe has been working on the same objectives, just one decade later: creating its own digital ecosystem, protecting it from Silicon Valley, creating its own social media, and protecting itself from fake news.  

No longer behind 

There are several dimensions: censorship, industrial development, perpetuating its own spirit in global affairs, and some form of protectionism. Why did China need protectionism? Its long-term vision asked for China to become the first in the world in cyber, particularly in #AI. Familiar again? Europe wants to boost its own AI related capabilities and wants to become the first in the world in “ethical AI”.

Of course, the meaning and implications of these broad definitions are not the same for China and the EU. And just like the US and, later on, China, the EU is now trying to assert its own voice and views in the world. It is not only about selling more of its own software and services. It is about “terraforming” the world of the digital in accordance with its own values. Some say this is a natural human / civilizational aspiration. The US was first in this race, so they used globalisation. The Chinese used censorship. And the EU aims to do this through international governance treaties - the “rule of law based international order”.

Clearly, there is no malicious intent on the part of Europeans. These are two sides to the same coin: global competition and the need for protection. After seeing the US example of post-9/11 surveillance of the internet and the blocking of the internet by the Chinese, Europe needed to make a choice and invent a new way of protecting itself while not isolating itself from the world. This came by means of a composite instrument. This instrument is called #GDPR - #CopyrightDirective - #ePrivacy - free flow of non-personal data - #DSM - #FakeNews blocking - fighting terrorism & disinformation.

Like any form of soft power, our “wall” is more likely to be effective with those who are willing to comply rather than those willing to use brute force. Compared to the US and China, the European system will facilitate law enforcement efforts, but will lack in biting force to prevent abuses of the internet. In other terms, though it was in part created to stave off attacks via the internet from the outside in, it will still behave reactively rather than preventively.

There are similarities as well. Europe’s need for a “Cybersecurity shield” also came as a consequence of radicalisation and terrorism within its borders. Each of the three (US, EU, China) is protecting its own form of democracy and prosperity. And Europe has finally joined the club of great powers thinking about and willing to take action to create the positive effects it desires in the long term.

By putting into law a series of measures and ways of thinking, Europe has in fact made the decision to separate itself, in a sense, from the rest of the world. By creating this European regime of digital protection, the EU has taken upon itself to forge its own path in digital, no longer subject to “US protection” - the perennial obsession of European political leaders - but assuming a divergent path.

One level higher, the industrial policy does not refer only to the digital industry in Europe or what kind of internet its citizens access. It is about the strategic assets in which Europe feels it has a lead on the rest of the world: Intellectual Property (#IP) and Research. While thanks to Trump’s stance on NATO and the interference with elections in the US and Europe by Russia, the EU felt the need to increase its defence capability, it does not aim to become the strongest actor in the world in defence. Rather, it aims for global strategic leadership in IP and R&I (research and innovation). From this perspective, the digital realm is the glue that binds Europe together, as Europe is short on a cohesion of scope, vision, or territory, and the digital crosses state and cultural boundaries. 

The European order 

A “European Global Order of the Internet” has a high potential of materialising. Anyone wanting to do business with Europe will now have to comply with our model of the internet and, as a consequence, will partially change their business model. This is particularly true for the countries Europe has FTAs with:

  • the European Economic Area, with its nested EFTA - Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland - which effectively extends EU’s Digital Single Market to Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
  • Canada, South Korea and Japan, which have already signed FTAs with the EU.
  • Singapore (pending signature), Australia & New Zealand, which just started negotiations, but which are on an expedited track on both sides and the EC hopes to reach an agreement by the end of its term in 2019, as the negotiations would happen under the new split-agreement arrangements (splitting investments from trade).

Europe is attempting to work with the most advanced (and like-minded) countries in the world, in a concerted fashion, on trade in goods and services and the facilitation of high-quality exchanges. These are the countries which are convergent with the EU in an economic but also regulatory sense.

Until after the 2019 elections, Europe will continue its debate about the #FutureofEurope.

Yet the 3 missing pieces of its New Instruments of Power will remain on the political agenda past 2019: a Multilateral Investment Court, a European Monetary Fund, and an EU Military Force. The completion of its toolbox with these 3 elements by 2030 will give the EU not only protective capabilities (hence “firewall”), but also power projection capabilities.

Looking at the broader picture, we see that, for the moment, the EU has not yet reached vision coherency beyond the lawfare-trade-digital nexus. As outlined by the European Political Strategy Centre #EPSC, there are competing visions for the future of Europe; some of the proposals do call for further enhancement of the EU toolkit for projecting power and asserting itself as a global leader. The three most prominent in 2018 are:

  • Defence capacity development – operationalised through #PESCO
  • The establishment of a “DARPA-style” disruptive innovation agency – proposed by president Macron but taken over by the Germans
  • The establishment of a true border protection agency, Frontex 2.0 – proposal tabled by Commissioner; vote scheduled for the Autumn Council in October 


All in all, though still made up of 27+ entities (27 Member States + EU Institutions), the EU is getting better at governance. Though it has been accused of dragging its feet, looking at how the EU has previously not managed concerted action on security matters, the progress it has achieved over the past 2 years is to be admired. Much in the tradition of old European chancelleries, the EU has splintered its Firewall into morsels nested across its policies spectrum. It is maybe for this reason that a transversal red line following this topic has not been brought forth openly in analyses. Conversely, the US and China are considerably more straightforward, adept at posturing and force projection. They are in the enviable position of having both force and unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Europe is discretely and steadily building up its capabilities.

This is what we can call true legal order / global governance innovation. The splintering and concealment in plain sight of its toolkit is one aspect. The other is the addition of outward facing tools: Investments Screening #FININT and associated Court, provisions on cyber nested inside trade agreements, EEAS Task Force South, the Hybrid Centre of Excellence’s with its “Hybrid Influence” Community of Interest, the European Monetary Fund. Upon reaching maturity, these will have a similar scope and relevance as tools currently used by the US: the SWIFT system, the US Dollar as international currency of exchange, etc.

We should not overstate the level of European advancement. As outlined by the EC’s research, Europe is slower to react to cyber threats than its major competitors. Yet it is accelerating towards comprehensive vision and capabilities. Now with a broader vision and stronger will to power.

Who will lead?

Stay tuned for the EU elections 23-26 May 2019.


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