A guest post by Frederike Kaltheuner. Frederike is a tech policy analyst and Director of the European AI Fund, a philanthropic initiative to strengthen civil society in Europe. Twitter: @F_Kaltheuner.

This essay is part of our ongoing China in Global Tech Discourse series exploring the myths, realities, actors, and incentives underpinning dominant narratives about China, tech, and AI. We’re excited to have Frederike Kaltheuner meditate on the (ir)relevance of the “new tech cold war” narrative for Europe. She also explores how the EU’s own rhetorical positioning as “the third way” — between what can be crudely described as unbridled American surveillance capitalism and Chinese digital authoritarianism — is both obscuring and self-serving. This piece informs our ongoing interrogation into these broader technology narratives at AI Now, where we are thinking through how (and in whose interests) values like democracy and authoritarianism are wielded in tech policy debates.

China’s ambition to become a global technology leader is putting the United States in unfamiliar territory. The idea that the social media platforms that shape public discourse, or the critical computational infrastructure that underlies our networked world could be developed and run by non-US companies is a radically new prospect for a country that is home to the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. In a newly emergent “tech cold war” between the U.S. and China, Europe is a natural ally to the U.S. as it seeks to maintain its technological supremacy — or so the popular narrative assumes.

From a European perspective, however, framing the tech rivalry between the U.S. and China as a “new cold war” seems oddly dated, and strangely misguided. Dated, because the cold war analogy turns an increasingly complex and multipolar world into a binary one. Misguided, not least because it assumes the existence of a “Western world” that is organized as a coherent bloc of like-minded “allies,” that would, for instance, automatically join the U.S. in banning Huawei from their 5G networks (which they did not).

The reality is much more nuanced and complicated. A 2021 survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) showed that Europeans’ attitude towards the U.S. have changed dramatically over the past few years. Four years of “America First” have undeniably damaged relationships and eroded public trust in the U.S. as a reliable partner. Transatlantic tensions are nothing new, but this time, most Europeans no longer believe that the U.S. has the desire and ability to “regain its influence,” regardless of who occupies the White House.

In the countries that ECFR surveyed, Europeans indicated very little interest in being drawn into a conflict between the U.S. and China. While support for the U.S. is still greater than it is for China, the vast majority of Europeans would much prefer their country to be neutral in a disagreement between the two. Almost sixty percent of those questioned believe that China will definitely or probably be a stronger power than the U.S. in ten years’ time — only three percent are certain that this will definitely not be the case.

This shift in public attitudes has far-reaching consequences. In the words of the ECFR: “Many people in America now see the prospect of a new cold war as giving their foreign policy a new focus. But Europeans are asking themselves exactly the opposite question: ‘what is the point of being a European if the cold war has returned?’” As a result, European governments will likely feel that they lack public support to follow the U.S. on decisions that are controversial or unpopular at home.

Yet shifting public attitudes are not the only reason why the narrative of a new tech cold war does not necessarily resonate in Europe. Wrestling with the rising and unprecedented power of foreign tech companies has been the focal point of European tech policy for the past decade, with the companies in question being primarily based in the United States. It’s hard to understate just how remote the companies that control much of Europeans’ data and critical infrastructure can feel at times. For example, members of the UK parliament were reportedly astonished when Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to testify before a UK parliamentary committee investigating fake news in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The 2013 Snowden revelations were a turning point that drew widespread attention to the fact that US authorities could, for instance, mandate direct and easy access to cloud data owned by these companies but gathered from non-Americans living outside the United States. How this affected trust in US tech companies was captured by a 2014 comment from the Vice President of Symantec Corporation: “almost every day the company faces questions about backdoors within its products that might be available to US intelligence agencies.” Seen through the lens of this European experience, US concerns about backdoors in tech produced by Chinese companies sound eerily familiar (and hypocritical).

This is not to say that the EU and U.S. don’t reach alignment on core liberal values, such as democracy and the rule of law. These similarities are among the reasons why the June 2021 U.S.-EU Summit announced a wide-ranging partnership around technology and trade. Yet despite a historical partnership, shared interests, and agreement on fundamental values, the U.S. and the EU have very different narratives and incentives about both the future of technology and their relationship with China.

While the EU and U.S. differ in approach, the specter of a U.S. vs. China tech rivalry does inform the EU’s own (misguided and aspirational) narrative about its role in shaping the future of technology. Over the past few years, European leaders, such as France’s president Emmanuel Macron, have favored the idea of a European “third way,” which they position as an alternative to what can be crudely summarized as unchecked US techno-libertarianism on the one hand, and Chinese tech authoritarianism on the other.

There are many flaws with this European narrative, starting with the fact that it entirely ignores the rest of the world. It also conveniently neglects anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies within Europe (or the U.S.), or the role that European surveillance companies play in human rights abuses around the world. At the same time, it grossly simplifies attitudes and regulatory approaches towards technology and regulation in the U.S. and China, while it downplays the EU’s economic dependence on both.

These flaws aside, the European narrative remains strangely under-articulated. For some, the idea of a European “third way” means the hope that Europe could play a leading role in shaping the future of tech, primarily — but not exclusively — through regulation. In this interpretation of the narrative, unchecked US techno libertarianism and Chinese tech authoritarianism are seen as two failed and deeply flawed approaches to tech regulation. As a result, a European alternative would have to entail a rigorous commitment to a tech policy that protects democracy and fundamental rights, as well as a comprehensive reform of the internet’s ad-supported (and surveillance-dependent) business model.

When it comes to both, however, Europe’s tough rhetoric currently doesn’t match its actions (yet). From the proposed AI regulation to the Digital Services Act (DSA) package, it is still not clear if European policy makers will truly rein in online advertising and uses of AI that are fundamentally opposed to digital rights. The proposed AI regulation contains loopholes for uses of AI by law enforcement and for border control and does not — as was widely misreported — ban face recognition in public spaces. Deemed a low risk, ads are treated as entirely outside the scope of the AI regulation. And while Europe’s data protection supervisor (EDPS) and a coalition in the European parliament are demanding a prohibition of targeted advertising in the DSA, there seems to be no majority support for this position yet. In other words, Europe is neither committed to truly reining in corporate surveillance, nor to fully protecting people from fundamental rights violations, especially when it comes to public sector uses of emerging technologies.

Again, the reasons for this lack of vision are complex.

Europe is not a monolith, and there are huge ideological divisions within the political parties that make up the European parliament. Business-friendly factions, for instance, are often sympathetic to the US approach to tech regulation, putting them at odds with factions that are primarily concerned about fundamental rights. The adoption of technology also looks vastly different across the European Union. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has revealed just how far behind some major European countries are in digitizing their economies and public services. As a result, tech policy debates often unfold on the national level, which can result in distinct discourses and terminology around risks, harms, and opportunities of technology.

What makes European tech policy even more complicated is that national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State. The proposed AI regulation is a prime example: while civil society wants the law to go much further in protecting fundamental rights, Member States have voiced concerns that the regulation puts too many restrictions on their ability to use AI in law enforcement.

Europe may posture as a tough regulator but creating new opportunities for businesses in Europe was always a key motivation in the Commission’s narrative around “trustworthy technology.” In 2019, the new Commission set out an agenda to shape Europe’s digital future. At its core, Europe’s third way narrative is focused on what ​​European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “tech sovereignty” and the “capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its values, respecting its own rules.” In other words, Europe does not want to be subject to the whims and jurisdictional arbitrage of either US or Chinese tech firms. But this doesn’t mean they don’t want the economic benefits of a European tech industry. The pandemic has now put an even stronger emphasis on the role that Europe’s tech sector could play in economic recovery. Digital transition, for instance, is a key element of Next Generation EU (NGEU), the EU’s €806.9 billion COVID-19 recovery plan.

Because the goals of meaningfully curtailing the power of US and Chinese tech, while protecting fundamental rights and growing and nurturing a parallel European tech industry on the other can, at times, be difficult to reconcile, it often seems like Europe lacks a clear vision about the kind of digital transformation it wants to embrace.

Here we see that neither the “tech cold war” allegory, nor the vision of a “European third way” are useful in helping us narrate and understand the complex incentives, considerations, and power relationships comingling to produce the current tech landscape. These framings lack nuance and fail to adequately describe the complexity of our interdependent world. As Kaan Sahin argued in an essay on ‘The Tech Cold War Illusion:’ “it is of utmost importance that those dynamics are understood as precisely as possible — not only for the two main competitors, but also for countries and regions like Europe, who run the risk of becoming of pawns caught between the two fronts.” Europeans may still lack a clear vision for the form and shape that its digital future should take, but being a pawn in a so-called “tech cold war” is certainly not on the European agenda.