Coronavirus Digital Policy Europe & Eurasia European Union Eurozone NATO Security & Defense United States and Canada
New Atlanticist September 21, 2021

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton: Trust in the US ‘has been eroded’

By Atlantic Council

Watch the full event

On Tuesday, European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton joined the Atlantic Council to outline developments in the European Union’s vaccination efforts, digital policy agenda, and cooperation with the United States. Below, edited for length and clarity, is his conversation with Ben Haddad, the director of the Europe Center, and others at the Atlantic Council.

FREDERICK KEMPE, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council: Today, you’re in the United States for discussions with the White House on launching the US-EU COVID-19 Taskforce. Your visit comes alongside notable developments within the European Union (EU), including the European Chips Act that EU President Ursula von der Leyen announced at her state of the union, the launch of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, and of course the EU’s continued work on new rules for the digital space.

THIERRY BRETON: This visit is pretty timely. I did not anticipate this, but it’s after the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and the AUKUS deal between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom—which, by the way, happened on the very same day that Europe announced its own Indo-Pacific strategy. I think nothing happens by [accident] in our world. It is true that some see this in Europe as a wake-up call.

To tell you the truth, I planned this visit many weeks ago, with of course a very positive agenda: to deepen EU-US cooperation, which is something that I believe I do pretty well, and I like to do it because I know the benefit of this partnership; to strengthen our supply chain; to fight together against a global pandemic; to invest the right way in our technological landscape; and to regulate, in an appropriate way, our digital space. And while all of this is still very much on the menu, and I have had very constructive meetings here these days, something else changed.

There is, indeed, a growing feeling in Europe—and I say this with regret—that something is broken in our transatlantic relations. A partnership works when both parties are honest and truthful with each other, when both parties treat each other with respect, and when both partners are strong—and, of course, when there is trust. But, of course, we are not naïve. Trust is not a given. And after the latest events, there is, I should say, a strong perception that trust between the EU and United States has been eroded. So it is probably time to pause and reset our EU-US relationship. But let’s review it case by case, and I will start, if you allow me, with the fight against the global pandemic.

There is, indeed, growing feeling in Europe… that something is broken in our transatlantic relations.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 situation, we have learned the hard way that no single country—in fact, no single continent—can fight a global pandemic alone. Today the EU and United States account for more than half of all the vaccines produced and delivered around the world. And almost all mRNA vaccines are done by us. If global manufacturing capacity skyrocketed, it is of course thanks to us.

Yesterday’s decision to lift the US travel ban on fully vaccinated Europeans is welcome. But let’s be honest—we should have done this before because at the end of the day, Europe is the first continent in terms of people being vaccinated, so it’s true that we did not understand very well why we were in the same list as Iran, Brazil, China, and so on. But it is a good thing that it’s done now. I’m extremely happy for all these families who will be able to be together again.

I should say that in fighting the pandemic, Europe has lived up to its responsibilities. Large amounts of vaccine precursor material have been shipped from the EU to the United States, allowing the United States to boost its vaccine production. And more importantly, the EU has exported half of its own production to support and vaccinate more than one hundred countries. We have been the only one to do this.

Now, if I may be frank, when the US government deployed the Defense Production Act earlier this year, it created concrete tensions among the EU-based vaccine producers regarding the availability and the access to key materials, and it is only when the EU put forward our export authorization scheme that we were able to engage back with our US friends in a frank and operational dialogue to unblock supply chains, ingredient by ingredient, product by product, producer by producer; and I did it with my team. By the way, thanks also to the cooperation of people that we had on the other side like [Counselor to the US President] Jeff Zients.

We’ll, of course, continue working with the United States on securing vaccine production, like when yesterday, we marked the first official meeting of the joint task force on COVID-19 manufacturing supply chains, together with my counterpart, Jeff Zients.

Let’s not forget that the EU and United States, of course, only represent 10 percent of the population of our planet, and to eradicate the virus and its variants, we need to sustain these efforts, not only for ourselves but now for the rest of the world. And that means continuing to export and helping other continents develop their own production facilities so that we accelerate the pace of global vaccination.

Let’s move now to technology and investing in technological leadership. Revisiting our supply chains, avoiding vulnerabilities, and making the right investment to our citizens—this must also be done in new technologies in which the EU and the United States share common dependencies on other countries.

Take semiconductors, for example, where technology and geopolitics are increasingly hard to separate. The global shortage is affecting many industrial sectors across the globe and, therefore, the daily life of our citizens. Today, for example, 80 percent of global semiconductors production is located in Asia—and we know, of course, the role of Taiwan—while Europe and the United States hold 10 percent each from each side of the Atlantic.

We, therefore, need to retake control and rebalance the global supply chains of semiconductors. Last week, President von der Leyen announced the launch of the European Chips Act, which aims to turn our scientific and research excellence and untapped capacity into industrial leadership.

Those who think it’s just about regarding the United States are wrong. It is about technological sovereignty, about having enough autonomy to make the right choices for Europe. To do this, we must strengthen our industrial capacity in Europe. It is not a question of wanting to produce everything we need in Europe. We need to diversify our supply chains in order to decrease overall dependencies on a single country or region.

And while the EU aims to remain the top global destination for foreign investment, we also need to make our local productions more resilient and preserve, of course, Europe’s security of supply.

I spoke earlier about how our successful partnership requires both parties to be strong. Well, let me be clear on this. In a world of growing uncertainties, it’s in America’s best interest to have a strong and sovereign Europe as partner. This is what I said to US Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) yesterday and what I will convey today to US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.

In a world of growing uncertainties, it’s in America’s best interest to have a strong and sovereign Europe as partner.

It is also in this spirit that I am approaching the discussion in the EU-US Trade and Technology Council. Certainly, Europe and the United States have a lot to cooperate on in tech, and as a tech commissioner, I very much value partnerships, of course, and I know that in technologies, this is paramount.

Partnerships are built by combining respective strengths on several tech issues, including semiconductors. I see pretty well where Europe’s strengths lie, including, of course, our added value. I have yet to understand what the United States will bring to the table.

Despite what some may think or wish, this discussion is not about classical trade negotiation with gives and takes; it is about our future industrial position. Europe has to and will carefully assess its interests also in the light of the new geopolitical realities.

[We have] a common challenge in regulating the digital space.

You all know that on both sides on the Atlantic, we have been exposed to the war of the [social media] platforms and the consequences, like fragility, in our democracies and also to the threat that underregulated tech companies can pose to the survival of these threats through the spread of disinformation or hate speech. And I think we are at a moment now where the United States and the EU have an opportunity to reestablish global standards for balanced digital regulation that counters illiberal practices.

Europe is doing its fair share. We are moving fast and first with the Digital Market Act and the Digital Services Act. We wanted to ensure a safe, fair, competitive, and innovative digital economy. And these objectives stemmed from the same principle and values that the US cherishes: free speech, consumer protection, safety of minors, open markets, and rule of law.

Obviously, upholding these common values in the digital space also means stepping up our game on cybersecurity. And here, again, not one of us can do it alone. The EU and the United States face the same cybersecurity threat, and we must therefore unite our efforts to combat ransomware, impose cybersecurity, protect information sharing, and establish supply-chain security including 5G, critical information-and-communications-technology supply chains such as the cloud. And these technologies will be, of course, absolutely essential for our safety prospects and resiliency to come.

And I just want to conclude now to tell you that with the pandemic, the technological race, and ongoing conflicts, yes, we can say that times are volatile. And no one is at the center of the planet. So cooperation is absolutely key. In the EU, we remain open but on terms and conditions we set ourselves for protecting Europe’s strategic interest such as our security of supply, and this is also true in the field of security and defense.

I firmly believe that a common defense for Europe is the way forward. It is not about rejecting our historical alliances. On the contrary, it is about being able to act on our own when needed when these alliances are not ready or able to do so. Be it on industrial production, technology, or different strategic autonomies about ensuring Europe’s freedom and capacity to act, it can only strengthen our ties and our common endeavor to create a better world together.

A common defense for Europe is the way forward. It is not about rejecting our historical alliances. On the contrary, it is about being able to act on our own when needed when these alliances are not ready or able to do so.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: You just briefly mentioned it: We’re here in difficult times in the transatlantic relationship. You said something is broken. You talked about a pause and reset and a wake-up call. What’s next? Where do we go from there in the relationship between the EU and the United States?

THIERRY BRETON: Well, there is a growing feeling in Europe that something is wrong. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling within our citizens. It’s a feeling within some member states. And the strength of our partnership is extremely important and paramount.

Take, again, the vaccines. We are not yet done, but if we are where we are today with almost 70 percent of the adult population vaccinated from both sides of the Atlantic—although we know that we still have to move ahead—it is because of the cooperation between Europe and the United States. And when I say cooperation, on the six vaccines working today, five have been developed in Europe by scientific researchers funded by European money. We put this together. It’s really, I should say, in terms of science and technology and industrial capacity, it’s a European-US partnership success.

We need to continue this because we know that if (hopefully) at the end of the year everybody is fully vaccinated on both sides of the Atlantic, it will represent 10 percent of the population. And we need already to take care of the rest of the world and discharge our responsibilities. This is why it was very important yesterday, together with Jeff Zients, to continue the work that we have done. We worked extremely well together with our joint team, where it had been decided last June between US President Joe Biden and President von der Leyen to create, together, a joint task force. We have been working together already for the past year or so. We know how to do this very well, but it’s important to continue to enhance it for us, and for the rest of the world.

Same thing, for example, for the fight against climate change. That’s extremely important. We know that our partnership will lead (hopefully) a successful effort, and there’s a lot of challenges if Europe and the United States cooperate. And for the rest, we have also all sorts of challenges. I hear that some of our member states in Europe say that maybe we need to pause after Afghanistan, after the ban that nobody understood, after what happened last week, or this new AUKUS. I mean, there are these voices, and that’s a political reality. Of course, personally, I regret it. I hope that we’ll be able to work again in good spirit and in trust. Because at the end of the day, we are allies. We have been allies for decades. We will be allies for decades. But we want everybody to be reminded of this on both sides of the Atlantic. And by the way, regarding China, we know that China is our systemic rival.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: I want to continue on the concept of strategic autonomy. You made an impassioned plea for it, and you’ve been vocal with some of your EU colleagues on this concept. We heard you also after the lack of consultation after the Afghanistan withdrawal. This is a concept that’s often misunderstood both in the United States but also in some parts of Europe where it’s seen as breaking away from the alliance, independence, or equidistance between the United States and China, for example. What do you say to those voices that are afraid of Europe’s path to strategic autonomy?

THIERRY BRETON: Well, you know, we are politicians. And in politics, words are important. And it’s true that the European Union is made up of twenty-seven countries. We align our global interests more and more, which is good, but we have our own futures, our own histories. This is what makes Europe. And this is also maybe why we are one of, if not the, most advanced democracies on the planet. And it’s difficult. And it requires a lot of capacity to listen to everyone. And when you speak of sovereignty or strategic autonomy, this resonates differently in different parts of Europe. That’s true.

So this is why, instead of using words, I prefer to use a full sentence. Saying, for example, that what we believe and what we learn every other day, including with what happened in our relations over the past few weeks and months, is that in some areas, we need to be able to make our decisions and to monitor our destiny ourselves. Look at the vaccine. Believe me, I have been in charge, and what I realized is that suddenly, the supply chains were blocked between the EU and United States. Never in my life did I think I would have to cope with this situation.

It has been painful. What did we learn? Continue to cooperate and also to increase our ability to secure our own supply. It’s the same thing in some areas in defense and the same thing in some areas like in semiconductors, in technology. It doesn’t mean that we want to do everything on our own. It just means that we need to take the decisions together. When we believe it is crucial for Europe and our fellow citizens, we need to secure some areas where it’s critical because sometimes even our strongest ally will not be able or not willing to do what is needed for us.

Sometimes even our strongest ally will not be able or not willing to do what is needed for us.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: And as you said earlier, a strong and sovereign Europe would be also in the interest, of course, of the alliance.

THIERRY BRETON: Like always in partnership, you need to have a strong partner. We will be partners for decades, but I think it in this complex world, it is definitely in the interest of our US friend to have a strong ally in Europe.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: I want to turn a little bit, talk about technology and digital issues. There have been some rumors about whether the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, which the first edition was supposed to be hosted in Pittsburgh I think later this month, could be paused. Do you have any comment on that?

THIERRY BRETON: No, I don’t have any comment and I don’t have any information on that. But you know, as the co-chair of the meeting mentioned, she said nothing breathtaking from this meeting is what she expected, but we’ll see. I don’t have any information.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: I’m going to turn to Fran Burwell.

FRANCES BURWELL, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center: You are often regarded in the media as the champion of digital sovereignty in the European institutions. On this side of the Atlantic, I think that we’re still not always sure exactly what digital sovereignty means and what it requires in a policy approach. What does it mean to you? How do you define it? And what does it bring as far as the risk of protectionism? Will it require excluding others to build European capabilities? And here I would point to the Digital Markets Act, which you mentioned, and the widespread assumption right now that the gatekeepers and the way they’re defined would apply primarily, if not only, to US companies. Are US companies in a special category compared to other non-EU companies when you think about digital sovereignty? Could you help us understand this concept?

THIERRY BRETON: We must refer to the author of the term. I’m not the author of “digital sovereignty.” It is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is the author of “digital sovereignty.” And by the way, when Chancellor Merkel was leading Europe six months ago, she put digital sovereignty, and she explained what she means by digital sovereignty, on the top of the list of our agenda. So I just propose that you see what she means by that, and as I’m in charge of digital in the Commission, I refer to her statement. But you will understand while reading what she means in that in some areas we need to keep our capacity to act on our own.

Let me give you an example. I have been also minister of finance, but I have also led some big tech companies, including in telecom. And I should tell you that it is a huge concern in Europe, especially for companies, to understand what will happen with their own data. We all understand the USA PATRIOT Act. We all understand the US CLOUD Act. For example, digital sovereignty means, of course, to be able to tell exactly to our companies what happens to what is most important to them: their data. But of course, it doesn’t mean that no one could come. We welcome everybody.

And you know, all my life, I did that. We have rules. We have to be clear in our rules. Everybody will have to understand our rules. My mission is to make sure that they are simple, they are readable, visible, and last for long. So that’s basically what we mean by this.

Now, regarding the Digital Markets Act, I could reassure you, this targets no one. This is really something not against but for Europeans. It is my job. My job is to make sure that I’m working for European growth, European competitiveness, European companies. That’s my job. And of course, in this, we welcome everyone. But it’s true that we decided that—and, by the way, this is the exact same situation in the United States—but some companies are so big now that they maybe sometimes act as gatekeepers. And you mentioned some US companies. We don’t have only US companies in the world. We have also other companies, big companies in Europe, big companies in Asia, big companies in China. And it is exactly these companies that are being taken into consideration in the DMA. But I assure you, there’s nothing against any one person, and especially not in the United States.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: I want to continue on this question of digital sovereignty and the DMA and DSA. The EU has really risen as a global standard- and norms-setter on the international stage on digital issues. And there are plans on artificial intelligence, for example. But it hasn’t been the innovative superpower that others, like especially in the United States, are. Could there be a form of tension between the two? Can we regulate without innovating? And in a way, who really shapes the norm? Is it the innovator and the creator, Silicon Valley, for example? Or is it the regulator who’s reacting to the technology?

THIERRY BRETON: Let’s be honest: It’s a discussion about how to behave in the digital space. It’s not a European discussion. It is a discussion extremely vibrant here in the United States—with, by the way, more radical proposals that are here, including in the US Senate. That’s what we need. This is just a normal discussion that we need to have as policymakers because guess what? Our children spend as much time in the digital space as in the physical space. And we see that there is no regulation here to protect our children, to protect our democracy—and I want to come back on January 6—to protect what we cherish.

So what we said is something extremely simple, that everything that is authorized in the physical world should be authorized in the digital world. But everything that is forbidden in the physical world has to be forbidden also in the digital world. This is exactly what is the DSA about—nothing more, nothing less. And I strongly believe that it’s not about regulating for the sake of regulating. I have been a chief executive officer all of my life. I have been a professor at Harvard teaching in the Harvard Business School, even. But I know also that it is our job to propose this.

And by the way, before preparing this, we are the only continent to have asked (for almost one year) to the planet: What do you believe? We had three-thousand contributions—a lot coming from United States, from governments, from countries, from nongovernmental organizations, from everyone. And we took time and we worked. And we believe that what we propose is pretty balanced. And, by the way, maybe it will give some ideas to our US friends.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Here’s an important question from Lara Jakes, who’s a New York Times correspondent: Why is the EU opposing the waiver on intellectual property rights on vaccines?

THIERRY BRETON: No, I think it’s a misunderstanding. First, I should say that we have more or less six vaccines, maybe seven vaccines, which are really working. We have mentioned four of them have been developed with patents in Europe, two in the United States. So it’s not a question about patents. I should tell you that being in charge for our continent of the ramping up of the industrial capacity, it is definitely a problem of industrial capacity and infrastructure.

We initiated with Team Europe the first manufacturing fabrication plant for a vaccine in Senegal. I mean, it’s a very complex process. It takes time, but we need to do this. Before giving the patent freely, we need to organize ourselves. Where do we believe it’s appropriate to have these facilities? You need, of course, infrastructure there already.

Why Senegal? Because for eight years, Institut Pasteur was already in Senegal, and that Senegal is making the yellow fever vaccines for the planet. So they have skills. They have supply chains. They have networks. They have an ecosystem. But it’s very difficult and it takes eighteen months to do this.

And then, of course, will come the time to determine whether the lab will come or the company, and under which conditions? But we cannot wait. If you say I give you the patents and you do not wait… it’s reminding me of the Russian Sputnik vaccine, so-called Sputnik V. Russians were saying it’s great, it’s a great vaccine, and so on, and you could get it, you can get it. And at the end of the day, we realized that it was extremely difficult for them to manufacture this vaccine—just to make it, you know, manufacturing in a plant—because it’s extremely complex.

So that’s why doing step by step in terms of vaccines and in terms of the capacity to do what we have to do [is important]. First, we open our border for, let’s say, a year. We have been the only one to be able to vaccine the rest of all our allies, all the NATO allies, and the United States was closed. And it has been painful and difficult, but we did it. And we did it with half of our production. And it was difficult for our population to explain that it was our mission to do this, not to close our borders.

Second thing, to get ready to share vaccines, since this is the most important thing. Because now we need to be able to vaccinate our population, and we cannot wait two years. And at the same time, [we need to] start to identify how to help these countries in Africa, in South America, and elsewhere to start to build their own capacity. And then will come this question at the end of the day, but it will be important.

We need to be able to vaccinate our population, and we cannot wait two years. And at the same time, [we need to] start to identify how to help these countries in Africa, in South America, and elsewhere to start to build their own capacity.

But do it step by step. Open your border. Give the vaccines. Try to identify where to build these factories.

EU did export more than half of its vaccine production, more than half, to more than one hundred countries: Canada, Mexico, all our NATO allies, everybody—Japan, Israel.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Let me turn to my colleague Julia Friedlander, who is the Boyden Gray senior fellow and the deputy director of our GeoEconomics Center here at the Atlantic Council.

JULIA FRIEDLANDER: Regarding the EU Chips Act that President von der Leyen has announced and you yourself outlined for us on LinkedIn, and how will funds be appropriated among member states given the heterogeneity of national economies to promote technological development in this area? I mean, we’re having enough trouble with that, thinking about how we’re going to roll it out in the United States on a state level.

And maybe a little bit more broadly and philosophically, how do you view economic competitiveness, either driven by markets or by the state, as an element of national security policy? And I think that drawing that line, is crucial for working with the United States because those are the terms that the Biden administration is using.

THIERRY BRETON: To the first question, you’re absolutely right. By the way, I was yesterday meeting with Senator Warner. He is, as you know, chairing the Intelligence Committee in the Senate, but he’s also the sponsor of the US CHIPS for America Act. And we were discussing this—exactly this question together.

First, President von der Leyen announced this EU Chip Act. It is—the allocation is almost the same as that in the United States. Fifty-two billion dollars for the United States. It’s, roughly, the same figures for the EU together with our member states. So we are discussing a comparable amount of money, which is important, of course.

The second thing, of course, is that we have to be careful here because we will use public money, of course, and it means that we have to be extremely cautious, and especially for us in Europe, in order to make sure that we want to align everybody.

So we have created a semiconductor alliance. In other words, we put together everyone as a participant of the semiconductor ecosystem. When I say everyone, we invited, of course, all European companies. We invited the research and development centers. We invited everybody. It could be member states, who we believe have something to say here, and to be part of it.

And then, of course, we are deciding now on our strategy, and the strategy should be simple to explain. For us, it is, first, to increase the capacity of production to leverage, let’s say, in the next ten years. The US strategy is to triple it. Together, the United States and the EU should be able to have together the capacity to produce 50 percent of what the world needs in semiconductors by the end of this decade, 30 percent by the United States and 20 percent for us.

The second thing is, of course, to know how we will be able to support this investment, which is needed, and for us, of course, it means that we are welcoming foreign investment. We are welcoming any kinds of companies. To tell you the truth, I’m in discussions with a lot of US companies. We are discussing also with Asian companies. And at the end of the day, it’s important to discuss what to do with it and what kind of technology we want to use.

So we have now a particular agenda or roadmap. And that’s something that we can offer, of course, to non-EU partners to make sure that they will contribute with our own conditions in terms of security of supply in mind, which is, as you could imagine, extremely important.

Then we have to avoid the kind of race for subsidies between one country or the others, and that’s something that was a concern with a discussion I had yesterday. Maybe I will have this discussion again this afternoon with Secretary Raimondo. So we need also to see how we can organize this.

So last point for us is to be able to coordinate even better our research and development. We have extremely strong research and development centers in Europe and, of course, we want to be able to align all our strengths here.

So that’s a lot of work. But it’s interesting also to exchange here our views with our US partners.

The second question about national security policies, that’s a very important question. When I joined as the commissioner in charge of digital, I had to cope with the 5G story and question, and you remember it was high on the agenda of the previous administration, the Donald Trump administration. And then from the US part, it has been: This company is forbidden, period. I will not give you the name, but you will recognize it probably.

For us, we took a totally different approach. We met, and I did it with my team, all member states. We decided to define the criteria, which were extremely important, to protect our national interest in 5G deployment, and we know that we have a lot of risk here. We put this in a 5G toolbox that everyone agreed and supported. And, of course, we said then, which is true, everybody is welcome, of course, to come to invest in Europe—as long as you fulfill with these requirements.

In other words, we say: If you fulfill, you are not a high-risk supplier. If you don’t fulfill, you are considered as high-risk suppliers. And we have been able to find our ways. So that’s the European way.

Watch the full event

Related Experts: Benjamin Haddad, Frederick Kempe, Frances Burwell, and Julia Friedlander

Image: European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton discusses COVID-19 and the EU’s digital and industrial policy agendas at the Atlantic Council. Photo via Jasper Gilardi/the Atlantic Council.