ITS Webinar on Open Strategic Autonomy (OSA) on January 27, 2021

In this article, I provide a review and summary of the ITS webinar on Open Strategic Autonomy (OSA) on January 27, 2021.

The entire webinar can be watched here.

The topic of OSA was discussed by five experts in the form of a panel discussion moderated by me: Thibaut Kleiner – European Commission, Dr. Paul Timmers – Oxford University, Carmen Gonsalves – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands, Jonathan Sage – Government and Regulatory Affairs Executive IBM and Derk Oldenburg – Independent advisor for Digital, Telecommunication, Transport, Institutional EU Affairs.

Key question was, what does this concept mean for European digital sovereignty and what needs to be done to get there?

Through this discussion, we gained a better understanding of what OSA means for future European digital communication infrastructures or enterprise cloud services like GAIA-X. As the term “open” indicates, OSA is not about protectionism and should not be mixed up with autarky. With OSA, Europe aims to get better access to top technologies, to reinforce its own technological capabilities, and to invest sufficient funds to achieve this. In this way, Europe wants to make the digital transformation work for the benefit of all citizens as well as make Europe a credible global interlocutor.

In a statement from 19 January 2021, the European Commission re-iterated the OSA ambition: “The EU has a vital role in shaping the system of global governance and developing mutually beneficial bilateral relations, while protecting itself from unfair and abusive practices”. This goes hand in hand with the EU’s commitment to a more resilient and open global economy, well-functioning international financial markets, and the rules-based multilateral system. “This will also help us diversify and solidify global supply chains to protect us from future crises and will help strengthen the international role of the Euro”. In this spirit, the EU will undertake a Trade Policy Review to ensure the continuous flow of goods and services worldwide and to reform the World Trade Organization.

OSA is a means to an end (namely, sovereignty in key areas), it is about assets that belong “to us”, about territory, natural resources, people, internal legitimacy, external legitimacy, capacities and capabilities, and about essential aspects of the longer-term future, in economics, society, and democracy. We learned, that OSA is built on three pillars, (1) strategic partnerships (for example EU FDI regulation, EU Cloud and 6G), (2) Risk Management (EU NIS Directive and GDPR) and (3) Global Common Good (EU R&D, 5G, IoT, Global Domain Name System), a widely underrated approach.

Seeking strategic partnerships with like-minded states, and possibly engaging private actors, to make the most critical technologies and systems more resilient and build a secure digital infrastructure is a key element of OSA. These strategic partnerships can be complemented by cooperation with other, not necessarily like-minded, states in the form of specific cooperation among equals. This would create mutual economic and technological dependencies in the respective areas of cooperation – and thus indirectly contribute to security.

For me, as the moderator of this session, one of the most important lessons learned is that being a “regulatory superpower,” is a helpful – or even necessary – but not sufficient prerequisite for global success. Setting standards in many areas, even beyond Europe, such as the GDPR and the Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive is good, but that alone will not be sufficient to secure Europe a place in the global top league and accelerate the post-pandemic recovery. By implementing OSA, I see an opportunity for Europe to gain the means to increase its sovereignty and also become a global superpower. Through the pandemic, we learned that besides the digital area, more sovereignty is urgently needed in other highly relevant industrial and public sectors such as health, pharmaceuticals and protective equipment.

Another avenue is the further development of diplomatic instruments (“Cyber Diplomacy”) to distribute EU norms in other jurisdictions to ban certain behaviors and to impose and enforce sanctions. To be cyber-safe these days, we need close cooperation between state and private players, a global mindset and more collaboration.

During the session, we have also looked at the flip-side view at OSA, namely “Open Strategic Dependency” and different scenarios like self-sufficient economies and the patchwork globalization that would be the result of global decoupling. 

This webinar has allowed us to shed light on the background and the fundamental issues involved in building the next phase of the digital field and adjacent areas, which are crucial for the recovery of the European economy.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to all speakers, as well as the academic host Chalmers University and Erik Bohlin for their great contributions, and especially to Derk Oldenburg and Paul Timmers for a critical review of this post.