Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / January 5, 2022

The road to EU sovereignty in critical technologies

In EU industrial policy, certain technologies are considered particularly critical for advancement, growth and sovereignty.

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Written by Nera Kuljanic with Carl Pierer.

Technological sovereignty is an important ambition for the European Union (EU). The Covid‑19 pandemic has drawn attention to critical technologies, due to its impact on many value chains. However, there is no common definition of technological sovereignty. The resulting ambiguity can lead to divisive rhetoric that threatens the EU’s ambitions, since the policy objectives and the fulfilment of the corresponding aspirations depend on the definition of the term.

In EU industrial policy, certain technologies are considered particularly critical for advancement, growth and sovereignty. Among them are six key enabling technologies (KETs): advanced manufacturing, advanced (nano)materials, life-science technologies, micro/nano-electronics and phototonics, artificial intelligence, and security and connectivity technologies. Concretely, these overarching clusters of technologies have applications in autonomous systems and Industry 4.0, in biomaterials and rapid prototyping, in neurotechnology and bioelectronics, in quantum computing, in robotics, and in cryptography, among other things. Mastering these six KETs could therefore make Europe more resilient and competitive in a global context.

A new STOA study proposes a definition of technological sovereignty for the EU, and analyses how the EU is performing in developing and protecting ownership and know-how in these critical technologies, especially in comparison with strong global players such as China and the United States of America (USA). Based on the challenges identified in the analysis, it discusses policy options for strengthening the EU’s technological sovereignty.

Europe losing ground despite strong commitments

According to the study, technological sovereignty can be understood as Europe’s ability to develop, provide, protect and retain critical technologies required for European citizens’ welfare and business prosperity, as well as the ability to act and decide independently in a globalised environment.

In pursuing technological sovereignty in KETs, the EU faces five major obstacles:

  • Lack of resources/raw materials: Europe is dependent on third countries for access to many of the critical raw materials or resources needed in the context of KETs.
  • Dependence on non-European suppliers: in several KETs, many of the supply and value chains depend on non-European organisations and know-how.
  • Digital skills: a lack and drain of technological experts and know-how can be observed, compromising European industry and academia.
  • Commercialisation of research results: Europe struggles to turn good scientific research results into commercial products and to retain them in Europe.
  • Regulatory fragmentation: there is a lack of joint action and coordination between different levels of governance and sometimes between different policies.

The analysis shows that Europe has made strong efforts to support the development of KETs, evidenced in dedicated investment programmes, research successes resulting in patents, and a competitive start-up ecosystem. However, the analysis also shows that Europe lags behind China and the USA due to a lack of research and development (R&D) funding, especially from the private sector, a lack of qualified skills in technology, and a lack of industrial leaders in KETs. Ultimately, Europe loses ground with its many good ideas and companies being acquired by non-European players.

The road to EU technological sovereignty

To address these difficulties, to avoid losing ground to other geopolitical actors, and to ensure the EU’s technological sovereignty, the study puts forward a total of 25 policy options organised in 4 ‘packages’. The first package outlines a proposal for a new EU strategy for KETs based on an institutionalised policy dialogue between all the relevant players: EU institutions; Member States; regions; and academic and industry stakeholders, including SMEs. The other three packages address the four key challenges across the KETs. They are, however, not KETs-specific, and should therefore contribute to improving the endowment of raw materials, reducing dependence on non-European suppliers, advancing skills and commercialisation overall. Most policy options target EU policy-makers, but some could be taken up at national level.

The study was complemented with an online event organised by STOA, which took place on 15 June 2021. Chaired by STOA Second Vice-Chair Ivars Ijabs (Renew, LV), it featured presentations by one of the study authors, Michael Flickenschild, Consultant with the Economic Growth team of Ecorys, and by Daniel Fiott, Security and Defense Editor at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Read the full report and accompanying Options Brief to find out more.

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  • The problem for the EU is no one wants someone else’s vision of what technology they should be using imposed on them. No one chose Chrome or Apple as their product of choice because a government pushed them in their direction, they chose those products because private business was allowed to innovate. Microsoft was the big satan no one could foresee their toppling of the search engine business or operating system both these things happened. Small can’t innovate it needs the deep pockets of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Apple or Facebook & now Tesla to break down barriers & produce the next thing we all need in our lives that we don’t know we need right now. EU obsession with uniformity is like Russia through the back door, what did Russia ever manufacture/invent that we all needed? Give business the freedom to innovate not isolate.

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