The EU in the digital era, what is at stake?

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By Aneley Farinati and Andrea Perrino

The ongoing War in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, the constant migration crisis, environmental damage and, above all, issues concerning AI technology are examples of current security challenges in the European Union. 

Maria Eleni Koppa, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Panteion University of Athens and former MEP, released us an interview and pointed out that, nowadays, many threats are not state-based anymore, as in the case of cyberattacks, so Member States should boost defense and security integration via enhancing the EU’s strategic autonomy. This also implies that the EU can no longer solely rely upon NATO for its security. 

Let’s see why and how the EU has to grab the opportunity of the digital transition to achieve many of its core objectives, including that of strategic autonomy. 


In the next decades many security issues will be connected to AI technology due to the rapidly evolving digital innovation. For example, at the end of March 2023, Italy was the first Western country to ban Chat-GPT, an American AI chatbot. These technologies will be at the center of security concerns because of their possible use in modern warfare and for their adverse consequences on people’s lives. They could be used as an instrument for cyberattacks, propaganda, and misinformation campaigns, as well as for several other reasons.  

Modern wars also include a cyber front line with very specialized hacker armies; to provide an example, as reported by the BBC, cyber plays a huge role in the Ukrainian war effort. 

Thus, in the following passages, we will focus on the implications that digital transformation and AI will have in the EU security and defense process, as well as on other spheres. 


The recent new-fangled ICT brainchildren such as chat-GPT in the field of AI and the increasing use of cyberattacks in international  disputes have given the European Common Security and Defense Policy a new dimension: a digital one. Not only do these changes move beyond Von Clausewitz’s vision of understanding war, but they constitute an element which obliges the European Union to rethink itself and its role in the world. The EU must take more ambitious steps; to what extent will the EU succeed when it comes to digital defense?


The release of the software Chat-GPT, a cutting-edge AI chatbot with natural language able to reply to any question, has sparked enthusiasm all over the world. It has been defined as a new Tesla moment: the breakthrough of artificial intelligence has become a matter of state. As Putin has claimed, updating Mackinder’s Heartland idea revisited in a digital dimension, artificial intelligence is the future Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. Is the European Union ready to be an AI forerunner, or will it be left behind?


According to European Parliamentary studies, the introduction of the most recent high-tech innovation in the field of both machineries and software could significantly boost the European stagnating economy. The estimated increase in labor productivity within 2035 is projected between 11 – 37 % and by 2030 greenhouse emissions could have been reduced by 1.5 – 4 %. To give a historical comparison, European post-WWII newly-integrated economies have been growing faster than the US’. Since the 1980’s, however, Washington has managed to bridge the gap and leave its competitors behind. How? The Strategic Defense Initiative put forward by President Ronald Reagan’s administration had not only implications abroad in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, but especially within the Western Bloc. 62 million dollars were injected into researching high technology, whereas Europe was unable to digitally innovate to the same extent. Now, with artificial intelligence, Brussels has a chance to catch up. The Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age has produced many papers addressing the policy-makers and calling for more investment in AI at the European level. In a requested study called Artificial Intelligence Diplomacy, it is highlighted that “Digital is the geopolitical blindspot of the EU”, and that more must be done to fill this gap.


Notwithstanding, what really worries the EU are the dystopian effects that AI could generate, especially with regard to fundamental freedoms. The European Parliament is currently debating the Artificial Intelligence Act, which would assign each software one out of four risk categories. Software with “minimal risk” are the only ones that will not require further legal obligations, but the regulation will be more stringent for those with “limited risk A”, demanding transparency for firms and chatbots, and “high-risk AI”. Private and public social scoring programs will be labeled as “Unacceptable high-risk AI”, as against the European values. Hence, for ensuring the security of more than 400 million European citizens, it is important to have digital boundaries. These risks represent a new form of threat which requires either a strict collaboration between different agencies or even the creation of a new agency able to face both internal and external threats. However, until the EU gains more room to maneuver within the bounds of the CSDP, this cooperation is not yet possible. While reading the 6th October 2021 European Parliament resolution stating that “artificial intelligence in criminal law and its use by the police and judicial authorities in criminal matters”, one may notice that there is no mention of the aforementioned cooperation. 


There is no consensus in the European Parliament. Some MEPs do not want to put heavy regulation constraints on AI, because this may hamper foreign firms from investing in Europe. Others believe that, if we do not take strong action on AI, we might end up living in a “Big Brother” reality. What Brussels really fears about AI is the Surveillance regime built up by Beijing, based on social scoring and ethnic facial recognition. This system has already been exported to third countries through technologies to build safe cities. 

Strong evidence has been provided by the Safe City project about the Chinese Huawei high-tech industry and some Serbian cities such as Belgrade. This project consists in dislocating thousands of cameras with facial recognition technology around the city. Thus, it is a potential danger for fundamental rights, namely for the civil and political freedoms of future European citizens. Furthermore, these types of projects could be a manifestation of Chinese attempts in interfering in European politics, economy, freedom, and security. This fear becomes even more tangible if we think about what happened in Belgrade at the end of 2019: joint Serbian-Chinese police patrols appeared on the streets of Belgrade, although their presence was formally justified by the presence of Chinese tourists in the city.  

Nevertheless, capitalism also brings risks for people’s freedom as untenable as those entailed by State surveillance. The idea is that AI is not as dangerous itself as most other digital inventions, or, as the geopolitics Italian magazine “Limes” has put it in one of its titles, the Intelligence is not artificial. New York Times journalist Ezra Klein has been very direct in a statement against capitalism, in his words: “I believe that the biggest part of our fears towards Artificial Intelligence are mostly fears towards capitalism”. The problem is that progress cannot be stopped, no matter how dangerous or scary a new technology can be; if we do not invest in AI, other countries will, and we might end up being an immense treasure for foreign countries and firms, such as the US and China, in terms of data and information we can provide them with.


We asked Professor Maria Eleni Koppa how to solve this impasse at the European level. “GDPR really manages to protect individual data. We cannot stop Artificial Intelligence, but we can regulate it. That is the EU power!” Her diagnosis entails that the EU must manage both investing in AI research at the EU level in order to keep up with other countries, and that “we must invest in technological advance together with human rights”, always keeping in mind that “to compete with China, we should not become China: we must keep the fundamentals”. Luckily, when it comes to data protection and fundamentals, the EU is already on the front line. As a result of the “Brussels effect”, adopted in 2016, the GDPR has been followed by many worldwide new laws and this can be verified on the UNCTAD’s web page at the sectionData Protection and Privacy Legislation Worldwide”. One could predict that something similar may occur with AI regulation. Sources such as The Economist have said so: The EU wants to become the world’s super-regulator in AI


As we said at the beginning, AI is strictly intertwined with cybersecurity. The document Artificial Intelligence diplomacy claims that AI can make cyber-operations more powerful as well as produce human-like texts to spread disinformation. The EU has released a EU Cybersecurity Strategy to address the problem. But, as Professor Maria Eleni Koppa reminds us, the biggest issue for European defense is that it is completely reliant on and secondary to NATO. 

We asked her whether the cybersecurity domain might be a good field for the European countries to collaborate in CSDP in order to build a strategic autonomy. “Cybersecurity is one of the fields where the EU and NATO manage to cooperate well, especially with exchanging data and enhancing digital security. We have expertise in this area as the EU. The role of cybersecurity in our strategies is central”. 

Her following reflection can be a good final statement envisioning a desirable future partnership between the European Union, with its Common Security and Defense Policy, and NATO: “I think we have a lot of things to do together with NATO. NATO is there because of the war in Ukraine and because the EU is not ready to face it alone. But in the long run, we must aim for strategic autonomy, which does not mean that we leave our allies behind, but rather that we must be able to work alone, IF we are left alone”. 

In conclusion, Artificial Intelligence and digital evolution are a good opportunity to boost the European Economy, the European Common Security and Defense Policy, and also the European role in the world’s landscape, not simply by remaining a “normative” power, but in an active way, both in the normative sphere and in prompting a European digital production. The European Union must not be a follower of the Digital Great Game run by others, but use AI and cybersecurity as new tools to relaunch its influence and prestige on the global arena.