The European Union (EU) is opening an office in US technology hotspot San Francisco as it looks to make ‘digital diplomacy an integral part of EU external action’.
The 27-member bloc wants a ‘more concerted European approach to the challenges posed by new digital technologies’ across the globe – with a soon-to-open dedicated office in the California city an important part of the plan.
The office is the result of the EU-US Summit in Brussels in June 2021 and a commitment to strengthen transatlantic technological co-operation and ‘resolve to drive a global digital transformation based on democratic values and standards’, as well as requests from member states to bolster the EU’s presence on the US West Coast, an EU spokesperson told Global Government Fintech.
Many of the world’s biggest tech companies are headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly Silicon Valley. For example, Apple is located in Cupertino, Google in Mountain View and Meta (formerly known as Facebook) in Menlo Park.
Technology sovereignty has long concerned European policymakers and the opening of the San Francisco office comes in the wake of the Council of the EU’s final approval of Europe’s relatively high profile Digital Markets Act (DMA). This aims to ensure that no large online platform that acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ for a large number of users abuses its position to the detriment of companies wishing to access such users. The DMA sits alongside the Digital Services Act (DSA), which seeks to ‘upgrade the groundrules’ for all online services in the EU.
Tech ‘can shift geopolitical balance of power’
The EU also sets the establishment of the San Francisco office in the context of its ‘Global Gateway’ initiative to mobilise €300 billion (about £255 billion) in investments by 2027 in infrastructure, digital and climate projects around the world. This was launched by the European Commission and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy in December 2021.
‘Digital technologies have brought new opportunities and risks into the lives of EU citizens and people around the globe. They have also become key competitive parameters that can shift the geopolitical balance of power,’ states an EU Council press release mentioning the San Francisco office.
‘The EU has a growing web of digital alliances and partnerships around the world,’ the press release continues. ‘It is increasingly investing in digital infrastructure and, under the Global Gateway strategy, in supporting partners in defining their regulatory approach to technology based on a human-centric approach’.
The Council ‘invites all relevant parties to ensure that digital diplomacy becomes a core component and an integral part of the EU external action’, goes on to state, adding that it should be closely co-ordinated with EU external policies on cyber and countering ‘hybrid threats, including foreign information manipulation and interference’.
One priority is also the ‘strategic promotion of technological solutions and regulatory frameworks that respect democratic values and human rights’, with the EU stating that it wants to advance what it refers to as a ‘human-centric approach’ to digital technologies in relevant multilateral fora and other platforms.
The EU-US summit last year – the first such summit since 2014 – also saw the creation of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council. The San Francisco office is partly a means to help this forum fulfil its goals, the EU Council’s Foreign Affairs Council noted on 18 July.
Office ‘under authority’ of EU’s DC delegation
‘The EU has taken a big step forward in the geopolitics of technology – establishing a digital diplomacy approach linking democracy, regulation and innovation. As a capstone, the EU will open a first-of-its-kind tech and foreign policy office in San Francisco’ observed Tyson Barker, head of technology and foreign affairs at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), in a LinkedIn post.
‘There is still work to be done to develop this European tech foreign policy identity but it is a promising sign that the EU is taking the geopolitical dimensions of digital technology seriously,’ Barker added.
The San Francisco office, whose head has yet to be announced (***), will work ‘under the authority’ of the EU’s pre-existing delegation in Washington DC, co-ordinating closely with headquarters in Brussels.
On 17-21 July members of the European Parliament (EP)’s economic and monetary affairs committee undertook a five-day visit to Washington, meeting legislators, government officials, regulatory agencies and the private sector. Topics discussed included financial services regulation, banking, crypto currencies, sustainable finance, competition and anti-money laundering.
In May a delegation from the EP’s internal market and consumer protection committee travelled to Silicon Valley to meet tech companies, local authorities and academia. Companies visited on the five-day trip included Apple, Google and Meta, as well as Airbnb, eBay, PayPal and Uber.
*** UPDATE: On 28 July 2022 Gerard de Graaf from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect), was announced as first head of the EU San Francisco office.