With Euroskeptic forces likely arriving in force at the European Parliament after the election this month, the tech community is getting nervous.
The concern is not so much about what populist lawmakers — Euroskeptic far-right parties are expected to seize 250 seats during the May 23-26 vote — have planned, it’s that their agenda is largely unknown.
To shed light on what the tech world should anticipate from the incoming anti-EU faction in Parliament, POLITICO spoke to campaigners and strategists for Euroskeptic groups around the bloc and analyzed their election programs on tech-related matters, ranging from digital industry to platform censorship, privacy and artificial intelligence.
A close look at the voting records of sitting Euroskeptic MEPs also helped to fill in the picture of how their parties have, and will, approach tech-y issues.
The parties covered include current members of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) groups, as well as likely members of future far-right and populist factions when new groups form after May’s election.
Euroskeptic reality check
The first lesson is a reality check: Technology is not the primary focus of Euroskeptic parties.
Whether or not Europe will restore its position as a technological force to be reckoned with on the world stage is far less important to them than, say, migration or the EU’s perceived intrusions into national affairs.
According to Johan Bjerkem, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, that’s because tech and digital policy “is not something that workers would advocate for,” referring to those parties’ core electorate.
However, technology does appear on the Euroskeptics’ agenda insofar as it touches on other priorities.
One is nationalism, which is shared by nearly all anti-EU groups and is piqued by the power and dominance of U.S. technology firms. Another is an attachment to free speech — or the ability to be able to communicate cheaply, freely and on a massive scale thanks to social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube.
The result is an at times odd combination: calling for Silicon Valley to pay more tax and respect EU cultures and languages, while fiercely defending American platforms’ role as passive hosts for content.
In any case, they want to set the policy on the national, not the EU, level.
“Nations were able to better anticipate the development of new technologies when they were not constrained by the EU framework,” said Nicolas Bay, a member of France’s National Rally who co-chairs the ENF group in the European Parliament.
But the unity between Euroskeptics breaks down on other matters. Records of their votes on complex debates such as privacy and copyright underscore how deeply Euroskeptic parties may diverge when the policies under debate have an impact on national interests, offering a hint of where such divergences could surface in coming years.
In other words, friction between nationalists on key tech issues is more than likely.
“Nationalist parties would prefer to develop their own key technologies in member states. To have a common European approach is not something that would interest them,” said Bjerkem.
One unifying call for Euroskeptics is the need to defend online “freedoms,” or at least being perceived as doing so.
Over the past five years, analysis of voting behavior in the European Parliament as well as political programs shows that Euroskeptic parties, on the whole, are very wary of any effort to regulate content on social media, even when the content in question is terrorist propaganda.
But that common front collapses over an issue such as online copyright reform, or efforts to strengthen data protection rules.
“Euroskeptic parties try to pitch themselves as the defenders of civil liberties, opposing a European Union sold to U.S. and corporate interests,” said French political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, who specializes in the study of far-right movements.
In their general attitudes toward big tech companies, European populists are taking many of their cues from the United States. Across the Atlantic, alt-right activists, echoed by Republican lawmakers and even U.S. President Donald Trump himself, have expressed dismay over a perceived liberal bias among tech companies, which they accuse of unfairly censoring right-wing content while continuing to spend heavily for online political advertising.
European nationalist parties are on the same page, sharing the fear of censorship for right-wing ideas. That is little surprise given how populist groups tend to rely more heavily on social media to amplify their message than mainstream or traditional groups, with recent data showing that far-right groups in France and Germany post far more on Facebook than their mainstream rivals, dominating debates about the European election.
This dichotomy was on display when Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to the European Parliament in May last year.
Politicians from mainstream groups grilled him on privacy scandals and tax rates in Europe.
Euroskeptic leaders had a different concern: Online censorship.
Brexit champion Nigel Farage, president of the EFDD group in the European Parliament, told Zuckerberg: “I’m your best client in the room. But I feel conservative commentators are willfully discriminated against.”
The National Rally’s Bay accused the social media giant of restricting freedom of expression. Bay slammed Facebook’s decision to shut down the page of Generation Identity, a far-right group aggressively advocating against immigration, calling it “arbitrary censorship.”
In Germany, the “Alternative for Germany is against all aspirations to restrict freedom of expression online and offline, under the guise of combating so-called hate speech,” reads the party’s political program for the European election. One politician from the party has had content removed from Twitter under Germany’s hate speech legislation.
The political pushback on platform regulation could make it harder for Europe’s mainstream to pass laws forcing platforms to more closely monitor and police the content their users post — a key policy fight for the next few years.
In April, a majority of MEPs from the ENF group voted against the European Commission’s legislative proposal to tackle terrorist content online, even if combating Islamic terrorism is high on their political agenda, arguing it could stifle free speech.
The copyright reform, however, was a trickier matter that exposed deeper divisions in the Euroskeptic political landscape.
Italy’s ruling coalition member the 5Star Movement and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party warned that they would implement the legislation in the most minimalistic way possible. The Alternative for Germany and the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE, who recently joined the government) also said they are against.
All argued that the reform would limit freedom of expression online.
But while critics said implementing the law would require so-called upload filters and usher in censorship, other Euroskeptic parties saw Google and Facebook as the bigger threat. The highly controversial copyright reform debate was a chance for them to restate the importance of European culture and identity against perceived foreign threats.
France’s National Rally, for example, voted in favor in the European Parliament to “protect the culture of our nations” against the so-called GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon).
In its political program, Austria’s coalition member the Freedom Party pledged to implement the reform even if it failed at the EU level.
Overall, the faction’s online media policy focuses on protecting the local industry against Google and Facebook to ensure a “media offering with specific Austrian content for our country and its population,” according to the manifesto.
Online privacy — divisions reign
Privacy online is another area where Euroskeptic factions don’t always see eye to eye. In October last year, they were split in a European Parliament vote on a resolution slamming Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
According to the National Rally’s Nicolas Bay, who voted in favor of the resolution, Europe’s privacy reform — the General Data Protection Regulation — is positive legislation. However, the data of French citizens would be even more protected if it stayed on French soil, he said.
“One of the challenges is to ensure French data are stored as much as possible in France, and European data in Europe. It’s a matter of sovereignty,” Bay said. However, he added “tech platforms are in a position to set their own rules.”
For other Euroskeptic parties, anti-EU sentiment trumps data protection. The Alternative for Germany, whose European Parliament election manifesto criticizes EU bureaucracy, calls for the “immediate abolition” of GDPR and a “return to national laws.” The reform has not “hit the big, but the small businesses,” the party wrote.
What Euroskeptic parties seem to agree on, however, is that online privacy rules should not apply to them. In Italy, the 5Star Movement’s platform criticized the country’s privacy regulation after it hit the party with a €50,000 fine for failing to protect users’ personal data.
In March in the European Parliament, the ENF and the EFDD groups overwhelmingly rejected a Commission proposal aimed at ensuring European political parties cannot misuse voters’ data in the context of the European election.
Euroskeptic parties in past months have warned that Europe is losing the technology race to the United States and China. The lack of leading European tech companies is mentioned in the political programs of Spain’s Vox, the Alternative for Germany and Austria’s Freedom Party, among others.
“They are suspicious of [American] tech giants because they are supranational entities that cannot be controlled,” said Jean-Yves Camus.
Europe falling behind on tech is perceived as a loss of sovereignty to the benefit of foreign powers. The Alternative for Germany wants to strengthen the screening of Chinese foreign investment in strategic technologies — an idea also echoed by mainstream politicians, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker.
“We’re not free-market fetishists,” said Tom Vandendriessche, spokesperson for the European Parliament’s ENF group and member of the Flemish-nationalist far-right party Vlaams Belang. He said Europe should “take a realistic approach to international trade” and warned against “supranationalization” of the tech sector and its governance.
However, Euroskeptics don’t perceive the European Union as the appropriate level of action to bring Europe back in the tech game.
According to Vandendriessche, “for centuries internal competition has been the engine of innovation in Europe.” He said diversity in tech is key, though project-based cooperation between countries could help scale up.
Bay echoed this position. “We do not want to do everything with 28 member states,” the Frenchman said. “But four or five European countries can get together to work on areas such as cybersecurity or 5G.”
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