How can Europe
step up its digital game?

Welcome to Europe’s Digital Power!

Europe’s digital power #1013618 is an ongoing research project by the European Council on Foreign Relations, and is supported by TelefonicaBBVA, and Cellnex.

The European Council on Foreign Relations is an award-winning international think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research; provide a safe meeting space for policy-makers, activists and intellectuals to share ideas; and offer a media platform to get Europeans talking about their role in the world.

As a think-tank with extensive expertise on the role of Europe in the world, we have launched a research project on the challenges that the digital revolution presents for the European Union and its future. As an important step towards a more strategic European approach to the digital revolution, this research project is mapping Europe’s digital power, outlining the challenges it faces, nationally and internationally, and recommending the policies and actions it should take to become a key player in the digital realm.


History shows that technological revolutions have the capacity to make or break great powers. The Mongols missed the invention of gunpowder, the Chinese were left behind by the first Industrial Revolution and the British failed to keep up with the second. The “third Industrial Revolution” – the digital revolution – is now underway and has as much potential as its predecessors to make or break powers in the international arena.

The twenty-first century will not be so much Asian or American as it will be digital. Already today, the digital economy acts as a power enabler for countries. In the future, much as it the case today with demography or energy, it will be a source of weakness, fragility and decay for those failing to grasp its potential and importance.

At the moment, however, Europeans are in danger of being left behind. This would not necessarily be a pressing issue for Europeans if there were a guarantee that markets will continue to function openly and that the internet will remain open, free and neutral. However, there are two challenges to this status quo.

The first is market access: the internet (Google, Facebook, Amazon), the mobile phone industry (Samsung, Apple) and telecommunications industry (NTT and AT&T) are largely the preserve of the USA and Asia. Meanwhile, Europe is conspicuously absent in the digital market, lacking the capacity to lead and innovate, and continuing to regulate in a precautionary rather than adaptive fashion. The lack of adequate political vision, the fragmentation of policy and the wrong approach to regulation means that as many as 900,000 jobs will be missed and a €250 billion growth potential will be wasted. It is also becoming progressively more difficult for Europe to access the market as big tech companies, with market capitalisations larger than many medium-sized states, dwarf the research and development capacities of fledgling companies with limited venture capital.

The second is nationalisation: states such as China and Russia, amongst others, are seeking to close and control the internet in order to prevent citizens challenging their regimes. Because the capacity of the internet to empower citizens and its ability to provide “inconvenient” counter-narratives, they see an open and free internet as a threat to their regimes. Hence many of these states have called for a Westphalian regulatory model in which each country will be a sovereign digital island and governments will be able to decide when and how citizens can connect with the outside.

Meanwhile, the political elites in much of Europe are largely unaware of the implications of the digital revolution. While Estonia, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden have the led the way, followed by the UK, the Baltic countries and Germany,  it remains the case that many other EU member states have no capacity or apparent interest in these issues. Europe needs to get its act together when it comes to these issues and take a more strategic approach to the digital revolution. Unless it is able to use its current weight as a foreign policy actor to preserve an open, neutral, and multilaterally governed internet, it could be condemned to increasing irrelevance – as other powers have been in history.

Europe’s Digital Power objectives

ECFR’s project “Europe’s digital power” aims to raise awareness among policy makers about the implications of the digital revolution for Europe, identify weaknesses in Europe’s ability to respond to this and propose solutions.

In order to do this, this project is exploring the relevance of the digital revolution in relation to the following dimensions of European power:

Economy: If the next round of economic growth and innovation is to be led by internet services, new online infrastructures and platforms, Europe has already fallen way behind and, given its limited research and development budgets compared to those of other players, will fall even further behind in the years to come. In addition, the EU approach to competition and regulatory policy means that even when Europe produces start-ups, they – and with them, the innovation they have produced – are often quickly acquired by large corporations outside Europe. Does the EU therefore need an “industrial policy” for the digital era? What shape should this policy take? What will it take for political elites to develop a vision for the future? How can citizens become more aware of how important the digital economy is for their future?

Security: While the traditional battlefield is being revolutionised by the advent of digital weapons, the internet is at the same time becoming a new battlefield. From attacks on critical infrastructure to interference with the capacity of others to communicate, the internet is being weaponised (“cyber warfare”). How well equipped are EU member states to deal with this shift in the way military power is used? How much security can encryption deliver? How well coordinated is Europe when it comes to dealing with cyber-security challenges? What should be the division of labour between NATO, the EU and national governments?

Diplomacy: The digital realm creates new opportunities to organise and mobilise. It therefore provides an opportunity for both states and non-state actors to engage on foreign policy issues, shape the foreign policy agenda, disseminate their values or influence each other. How can the EU become better at this kind of digital diplomacy? How should it respond to the use of the digital realm by other states (e.g. Russia) and non-state actors (e.g. jihadists)? How can the EU preserve an open and free internet in which free speech and human rights activists can prosper? Which international regime/s will be best suited to deliver on these goals? How can EU foreign policy actors use the internet to advance their policy goals outside Europe?


Europe’s Digital Power is an ongoing research project by the European Council on Foreign Relations and forms part of ECFR’s European Power programme.

Susi Dennison
European Power Programme Director
E: [email protected]

Nika Prislan
Project Coordinator & Researcher
E: [email protected]
T: + (34) 91 523 4818

European Power Programme: @ECFRPower