In uncertain geopolitical times, demand is high for political concepts to grasp the unfolding change and give direction. To Europeans and Germans, the presidency of Donald Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine have all demonstrated how dependent they are from other states and regions in the world. This is particularly true for technology in sectors such as health, energy, defense and digital. In order to reduce these dependencies. “Technological sovereignty” has become a key concept - some say a buzz word - in the political debate in Europe. As an underlying priority for the Chamber’s work with German policy makers, he proposes to firmly root the concept in a transatlantic economic and technology framework for cooperation. In today’s highly connected world order, there is no sovereignty without a measure of interdependence. For Germany and Europe, this translates into “transatlantic sovereignty” in close alignment with the U.S. as our primary partner. A discussion post.
Between Longing and Constraint: The Quest for Technological Sovereignty
We live in turbulent times. In the midst of wars, crises, and disasters, we search for concepts to guide us. In political speeches, government papers, and talk shows, "technological sovereignty" is now often discussed, as recently done by German Chancellor Scholz. Clearly, "technological sovereignty" has become a guiding term in the political debate. But what exactly does it mean, and what significance does the term have for geopolitical orientation in Germany and Europe? I will attempt to provide a systematic definition to identify the essential elements and, in conclusion, highlight the limits of the concept if it is not consistently integrated into the transatlantic values and economic space.
The German government is acting in the "Zeitenwende," proclaimed by Olaf Scholz, resulting from the Russian aggression. The government is creating a special fund for the Bundeswehr, sending weapons to Ukraine, and working towards isolating Russia. At the same time, it is taking measures to strengthen our sovereignty: new energy suppliers, domestic production capacities for green technologies, funding for the digital and defense industries. The turning point brings an unprecedented expansion of state activity and spending. Simultaneously, there is a growing inclination to retreat into the protected space of our own national and regional references. For some time now, the People's Republic of China has been seen more as a competitor and system rival, less as a trustworthy partner and lucrative market. Economic and technological cooperation with the U.S. is also increasingly criticized. Attempts during the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump to exploit the economic dependencies of trading partners in their own interest have reinforced the call for sovereignty: Germany and Europe should be able to act militarily, economically, and technologically to powerfully assert their interests in the world and not be dependent on other regions.
It is still uncertain whether our American partner and ally will become less relevant with the German "Zeitenwende." Some evidence suggests otherwise, as obviously, Germany can only remedy many deficits with the help of the U.S. This applies not only to the military security guarantee that has been valid for decades. We now also procure scarce resources from America and expand corresponding collaborations. U.S. companies supply vaccines, liquefied gas, and combat aircraft, build factories for semiconductors and electric vehicles, and provide the German economy with software and cloud solutions. And so, the interest of Europeans in their sovereignty also unmistakably arises from the desire to escape a situation perceived as deficient and vulnerable. Technological sovereignty stands, on the one hand, for the desire to achieve the greatest possible independence for Germany and Europe through independent access to resources and technologies. On the other hand, it describes (and laments) precisely the strong dependence on non-European suppliers, which results in a lack of skills and access.
The withdrawal into our own spaces results in interventionist policies that favor national markets. Tight European regulatory projects cause as much irritation in the U.S. as the "Inflation Reduction Act" (IRA) with its preference for American suppliers of electric vehicles and batteries, causing irritation and disappointment in Europe. In the meantime, the European Commission has announced with its "Green Deal Industrial Plan" that it will expand aid rules on a sector-specific basis and make existing EU funding available as a counterweight to the IRA for green technologies such as renewable energies, heat pumps, or electrolyzers. It appears that a "sovereignty fund" could follow this, providing additional European funding and potentially even introducing "Buy European" rules. Regardless of whether these industrial policy aspirations come true, it seems that Washington has succeeded in placing a multilateral and economically liberal Germany alongside the dirigiste France.
What is Technological Sovereignty?
The term sovereignty - to be distinguished from autarky (complete self-sufficiency with goods and services) and autonomy (the right of a state or group to set its own rules) - refers to the ultimate decision-making authority of the state. In this sense, the legal scholar Jean Bodin (1530-1596) used this concept, which is tailored entirely to state power. Consequently, the concept of sovereignty was initially strongly associated with national exercise of power and the mercantilist design of markets.
In Germany, "technological sovereignty" was probably introduced in 2011 as part of a working group set up by the Federal Ministry of the Interior. Here, the term was used in connection with securing critical applications and architectures of information and communication technology. The term is more comprehensive than the recently widely used "digital sovereignty" and includes technology fields such as energy, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, or armaments. Digital sovereignty is usually understood as a special case of technological sovereignty, although their political and analytical uses are very close to each other. Recent papers of the federal government define technological sovereignty as participation in and exploitation of key technologies, while digital sovereignty is understood more broadly as the ability to autonomously shape the digital transformation.
In addition, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, emphasizes the values aspect of technological sovereignty: "This term describes the ability that Europe must have to be able to make its own decisions in line with its own values and rules." The integration of Germany and Europe into global markets for raw materials, critical products, and technologies is so high that self-sufficiency is hardly achievable. Therefore, a meaningful definition of technological sovereignty must be located between the poles of complete autarky on the one hand and existential dependence on the other.
Some definitions focus on the material end result of corresponding efforts. This means the regional availability of certain raw materials, products, and key technologies thanks to their own procurement and production capabilities. Particular emphasis is placed on developing and producing key technologies in Europe without turning away from global trade relationships and value chains. Various studies from German natural and engineering sciences share this perspective. The Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (BMWK) also speaks of "technology and data sovereignty" and calls for reducing existing technological dependencies and strengthening future technologies such as quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity.
This definition, which is best characterized as "production sovereignty," is opposed by a perspective that aims more broadly at abilities, competencies, and choices. Accordingly, it is crucial to be able to deal with both own and third-party technologies and products in a self-determined way. "Application sovereignty" revolves around the ability of individuals and organizations to decide freely how technologies are used. In this context, own knowledge and skills are only one of three levers for application sovereignty, as argued by the Federation of German Industries (BDI), among others. In summary, technological sovereignty should be understood as the self-determined handling of technological challenges by individuals and organizations based on knowledge and skills, the availability of key technologies, and their political design. In the following, I will focus on the third aspect of key technologies to work out possibilities and limitations of the concept.
Key Technologies: Independence and Dependence
Key technologies are horizontal and fundamental technologies from energy, information technology, materials, or biology that are usable and indispensable in many areas of activity. The delimitation of such key technologies is not simple, and therefore a broad perspective is useful. The German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech) has undertaken such a delimitation for the digital sector and describes a total of eight levels of sovereignty in a layered model. These range from raw materials and components to communication and service infrastructures, platforms, data spaces, software, and the European legal and value system. It shows that Germany has considerable capacities and technological actors of global importance - such as in power electronics, B2B software providers, or cybersecurity. They are nuclei for the development of further abilities and offer negotiation potential for industrial policy interests vis-à-vis other countries and regions. The creation of mutual dependencies, such as for critical raw materials, but also for production facilities for key technologies such as semiconductors, plays a central role in these considerations.
However, Germany is not fully sovereign or even autarkic on any of the eight levels. The dependence on suppliers of critical raw materials and components, especially from the Asian region, has recently increased, and U.S. technology providers dominate the business in the field of platforms, data, and software technologies to a large extent. For Acatech, sovereignty ultimately means the opportunity to be able to decide for or against the selection and design of technologies. This is not achieved through protectionist isolation but primarily through the possibility of being able to choose between several providers. Where this freedom of choice does not exist, the next generation of technology must be invested in, lock-in effects must be avoided through open standards and interoperability, and "strategically relevant assets" must be promoted through cooperation in global markets.
Germany and Europe cannot be self-sufficient in terms of supply and access to critical raw materials, components, and technologies if they want to remain financially and economically capable and maintain a standard of living on par with developed industrial countries. In this respect, many demands for sovereignty in technological key components belong to the realm of legend. If it cannot be precisely defined for what purpose and in what form "technological sovereignty" should be achieved at a certain level, it is likely to be buzzwords in the political debate. Anyone who wants to improve the availability and use of key technologies must rely on a balance of various measures, including self-production and diversification, global risk distribution, and the creation of mutual dependencies.
Therefore, a realistic path to technological sovereignty must be found between longing and constraint: State engagement would not be useful in areas where increased independence would not bring significant benefits or would cause excessive costs. Conversely, past crises have shown that sovereign access to certain technologies can become a political inevitability that decision-makers cannot ignore. Industrial policy strategies for building technological sovereignty are always suspected of discriminatory and protectionist motives. They risk resulting in the isolation of international markets and thus inadvertently restricting access to advanced technologies that are actually necessary for one's own sovereignty. Openness to trading partners who share the fundamental values is a prerequisite for strengthening European competitiveness and resilience.
Whether Europe's global regulatory leadership role can create not only protection for its own markets but also European champions in new technology fields is doubtful. This is due to a lack of comparable access to risk capital as in other markets, a fully functioning European digital single market, and most importantly, the necessary technological know-how, talent, and entrepreneurship. Therefore, strategic decisions must be made, given limited resources, on which areas to create their research and production capacities, and where this does not seem sensible.
Conclusion: Transatlantic Sovereignty
The discussion of the concept of technological sovereignty shows that the correct political impulse - to develop the capabilities, technologies, and regulations to become sovereign in an uncertain world - can be easily shortened and weakened. The importance of education and research is recognized but not fully implemented in many areas. The political framework for technology and data in Europe and Germany is fragmented and inconsistent. A holistic and realistic strategy is lacking in promoting key technologies. Overall, the discussion of technologies in Europe seems to be led from a position of weakness and vulnerability, which makes every political action defensive, rather than transitioning to a narrative of strength and future certainty.
According to the DGAP, it would be wrong to speak in this context of "independence in the system competition of technological superpowers." An independent "third way" between U.S. and Chinese technology dominance is not possible (there is already talk in India of a "fourth way"). Not only would this deny European citizens access to products and technologies from other parts of the world, which may be cheaper, higher quality, and more climate-friendly, but it would also create the false impression that Europe has the power to autonomously decide which technologies to use and how. Instead, the continent depends on various stages of the technological value chains of raw materials, intermediate products, components, technologies, and not least of all, expertise, and skilled workers from other parts of the world - and will continue to do so.
It is understandable and legitimate to set ambitious and far-reaching goals for technological sovereignty. However, they must be combined with European-coordinated, precise implementation plans and a realistic perspective on achieving them. But the gap between publicly set goals and technological policy realities in Germany and Europe is growing. Therefore, the U.S. and the EU. should focus on appropriate forums and opportunities for cooperation. The "Trade and Technology Council" offers an opportunity, and the two economic blocs should seek further allies to counter the efforts of authoritarian and dictatorial states to undermine their technological sovereignty. International and multilateral arrangements such as the G7 and the OECD could be used to establish durable collaborations that go beyond the simple "yes/no" logic of block allocations.
Ultimately, it can only be about dealing with the fact of mutual dependencies. To achieve value-based technological sovereignty, the transatlantic economic area should always be considered. "Transatlantic sovereignty" would meet the demand of German citizens that their state ensures reliable ability to act without giving up the immense innovation and value creation potential of cooperation with companies from both economic areas.