Comment: Towards military technologies in Europe?
Comment by Justinas Lingevicius, Charlemagne Prize Academy Fellow 2021/22
During the first visit to Ukraine after the start of the Russia’s military aggression, European Commission’s High Representative Joseph Borrell at the press conference in Kyiv stated that ‘since you are fighting for us, the least we can do, is to give you arms.’ Earlier in March Mr. Borrell also mentioned that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has become ‘the EU’s geopolitical awakening’. But how these rhetorical references to ‘geopolitical’ action of the EU correspond to its forward-looking policies of the strategic importance?
The debate on what power Europe is has been longstanding and complex. It has shown that the matter of military developments or broader security issues have been something of a constant discussion between balancing closer European integration and national competence. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and discussions on heavy weaponry supply to Ukraine and its coordination have once again showed fractions and tensions within and between different Member States as well as EU institutional level. At the same time, the apparently preferred direction to build the EU as a norm setter and a global promoter of multilateralism through trade, regulation and pro-democratic standards has not remained without criticism and further questions of strategic ambitions and their implementation.
This tendency of avoiding more clearly defined strategic and even military positioning has been noticeable in developing EU’s approach towards emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its growing strategic relevance. For a few years already the Commission has been openly reflecting and admitting increased competition between major international powers (first and foremost the US and China) towards AI as bringing both economic and innovative opportunities, but also challenging social cohesion, human rights, and security. However, since 2018 in its first documents the Commission has explicitly stated that military applications of AI will not be a part of its policy scope. Even though the European Parliament has been and remains pushing to take a bolder stance and include military matters (for example, lethal autonomous weapons, hybrid warfare, military AI systems), the first ever Commission’s legal proposal to regulate AI has remained without reflections of it, limiting to some references of cybersecurity. For now, it seems that these differences are doomed to lock into long inter-institutional negotiations leaving military and strategic developments of AI something still too challenging to decide for the EU and better to be picked up by the Member States and their national ambitions.
On the other hand, the new Strategic Compass – the EU’s action plan for security and defence policy by 2030 – adopted this year in March, brings some hope that emerging technologies will be involved in formulating and implementing EU’s security policy directions as well. For example, the plan states to be filling in strategic gaps, reducing technological dependency from non-EU countries, and corresponding to already developed military applications of AI and related technologies. In other words, despite previous refusal to integrate military elements into the AI-dedicated policy, the Commission-led Compass seems to be changing this course towards accepting the importance and relevance of technologies for future defence and security. Of course, it remains to be seen how those goals put in this document will transform into their actual implementation across relevant policies and lead EU actors into an integral AI governance structure. It will bring not only financial, capacity and expertise challenges, but also further political debates how these goals should be aligned with other Commission’s preferred directions of AI regulation – very horizontal provisions on economy and social security.
The additional boost for this changing approach might also be the NATO Strategic Concept 2022, which also includes growing relevance of emerging and disruptive technologies as well as stresses both NATO and EU partnership in enhancing strategic partnership on these elements as well.
Nevertheless, calls for explicit and better-defined EU’s position towards military elements of AI should not be perceived as expectations of technological militarization of the EU. They rather point to a mismatch between publicly expressed ambitions to act ‘geopolitically’ and actual readiness not only to respond to existing crises, but to formulate a comprehensive vision and leading policy framework on what the EU security and international engagement should be, even on emerging technologies. Though the Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has become a wake-up call for endorsing the new and more robust Strategic Compass on defence and security, it is to be seen how this ‘geopolitical awakening’ will lead to treating technologies as a key future element for global power projection.