The EU in a Digitalizing World

How do we explain the EU’s digital policies, and how they affect member states as well as the world at large?

In a rapidly digitalizing world, the EU is busy finding its place. While Europe is widely seen as a regulatory heavyweight, it is not (yet) a technological or economic one. On the one hand, the GDPR is considered the global gold standard of data protection, the Digital Services and Markets Acts sent shock waves through the tech industry, and the world looks at Europe when trying to regulate artificial intelligence and data flows. On the other hand, Europe lacks digital giants of its own, it’s lagging behind the US and China with regard to key technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and its goal, first articulated in the Lisbon Strategy, to make Europe ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’ has not yet come to fruition.

Thus, while Europe holds the promise of offering a third model of digitalization - one that differs from both the state-centered model of China and the market-based US model - it has only made partially good on this promise. This ambivalence forms the background of my research interest in the EU’s ambition for and role in the digital age. The EU’s ambition, it claims, is about protecting ‘the European way of life’ as well as about promoting European solutions abroad. As commission president Ursula von der Leyen put it, in a digital world, “Europe must have [the capability] to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules.” But the Commission also makes clear that for “Europe to truly influence the way in which digital solutions are developed and used on a global scale, it needs to be a strong, independent and purposeful digital player in its own right.”

But does the EU’s actual role match this ambition? Is it enough to sustain a digital ‘Brussel’s effect’ whereby the EU’s digital policies become the de facto and/or de jure standard in other jurisdictions? Or is it necessary for Europe to build digital capacities of its own as the debate around digital sovereignty would suggest? Moreover, is the EU even able to enforce its digital policies at home, given the implementation problems that have bedeviled the GDPR? And lastly, who even decides over the content of the EU’s digital policies?

This leaves us with three interrelated sets of research questions:

  1. How can we understand and explain the EU’s digital policies? Is it the commission, member states, corporate interests, or civil society that call the shots in Europe’s digital policymaking? What are the conditions under which specific groups are more or less successful? Which power, institutional, or ideational dynamics are specific to (the EU’s) digital policymaking?

  2. How are EU digital policies actually implemented? What is the role of regulatory agencies such as the data protection authorities? What determines the extent to which governments provide financial and political resources to these agencies?

  3. Which effects do the EU’s digital policies have globally and what is the effect of global factors on EU digital policymaking? How are European digital solutions used or promoted elsewhere? What is the effect of geopolitical and geo-economic contexts and concerns on the design of digital policies and the dynamics of digital policymaking?