EU strategic autonomy must remain open, says Czech deputy PM

The EU must not close itself off as it moves towards greater technological autonomy, Czech Deputy Prime Minister for Digitalisation, Ivan Bartoš, urged at a Czech Presidency conference on digital innovation on Friday (4 November).

If Europe is to become a technological leader, it must provide good regulation and enhance its support for innovation. That is the vision of the Czech presidency, currently at the helm of the rotating EU Council, which also sees as essential the maintenance of close contacts with like-minded democratic partners, notably the US.

The past two years, marked by the COVID crisis and the Russian aggression in Ukraine, have put EU autonomy under the spotlight.

However, according to Bartoš, the EU’s strategic autonomy must also remain open.

“Closing ourselves up is not the way forward,” he said at the conference in Prague, in an attempt to dismiss protection temptations.

According to the deputy prime minister, a technologically autonomous Europe should be based on an assertive approach to third countries, building Europe’s strategic capacities and cooperation with its democratic allies.

The Czech minister also said that the EU is a champion in setting the rules and principles for digital technologies, but it is essential not to over-regulate to enable businesses to innovate and evolve.

An ‘open’ strategic autonomy

The speakers agreed that to build a resilient and autonomous European economy, it is vital to enhance cooperation with non-European partners and avoid protectionist tendencies.

According to Tomáš Prouza, president of the Czech Confederation of Commerce, even in times of crisis, the EU must stay open to its like-minded partners and needs reciprocity. He argued that the EU needs to fight the tendency to put up walls and close itself.

“It is very important for us to maintain close contacts with like-minded democratic states, most notably the US, where we see great potential for cooperation in digital affairs and standards-setting”, said Petr Očko, Czechia’s deputy minister for digitalisation.

The EU-US cooperation in the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) is, according to him, in alignment with the concept of an ‘open’ strategic autonomy of the EU, which is based on the principles of fair competition, resilience and innovation for European companies, while at the same time proposing the introduction of technological protectionism.

The panellists also noted that strategic autonomy is an expensive exercise. For instance, Prouza pointed out that funding is the most challenging element of the Council discussion on the European Chips Act, as investing in advanced technologies is costly.

According to Ray Pinto, policy director at the trade association DIGITALEUROPE, for the EU to seriously compete in the semiconductor area, it would cost up to €1 trillion, one of the reasons why international cooperation remains essential.

Europe’s competitiveness

The speakers agreed on the importance of balancing regulation with initiatives to create favourable conditions for innovation and the growth of innovative European companies for the EU’s technological leadership.

Deputy minister Očko noted that in recent years, much progress has been made to increase investments at the EU and member states’ levels. The EU should, however, do more to support the research and development of cutting-edge technologies and provide industry support, especially for small and medium enterprises.

The French minister of digital affairs, Jean-Noël Barrot, congratulated the Czech authorities for striking the right balance between stimulating innovation and ensuring consumer protection in files such as the Data Act or the Artificial Intelligence Act.

The Czech presidency’s legacy

For the Czech government, innovation was at the heart of their approach to digital policy. Minister Očko said that the Czechs are focusing on investment into projects related to regulatory sandboxes in areas like AI, blockchain and fintech.

Earlier this week, the Czechs also announced at the Prague Digital Council conference that they would build one of the most significant regulatory sandboxes in the world to be located in the area of a vast old stadium in Prague.

Očko boasted it as the most ambitious innovation project in Central Europe, adding that “complex support for innovations could be one of the legacies of the Czech presidency.”

In the meantime, the Czechs continue to push forward several digital files on the Council table, hoping to find a common positions. The AI Act and Chips Act are the most likely to be finalised by December, whereas discussions are still pending on the Data Act and European Digital Identity.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]