Altmaier charts Gaia-X as the beginning of a ‘European data ecosystem’

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire (L) greets German counterpart Peter Altmaier. [EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON]

France and Germany’s ambitious bid to create a European cloud data infrastructure to stave off US and Chinese competitors was launched on Thursday (4 June), as Ministers Bruno Le Maire and Peter Altmaier revealed more on their landmark Gaia-X project.

German Economy Minister Altmaier called the launch of the EU’s data infrastructure project, which will initially feature 11 French and 11 German firms, “the starting point of a European data ecosystem” which will allow for interoperable data exchange between a range of sectors, at all times abiding by EU data protection standards.

The initiative will set European standards for data storage and will also function as a platform for businesses to search for data storage providers, in addition to offering a secure environment for the cross-business sharing of data in Europe.

For his part, France’s Le Maire noted that the essence of the project was about European sovereignty. “We are not China. We are not the United States. We are European countries with our own values,” he said on Thursday.

However, that does not mean the door is completely closed to US firms for a certain level of involvement, although the association itself features European companies and is governed by Europeans. Altmaier noted that firms from outside the EU will have to abide by the principles of the project in order to be involved, which include openness, interoperability, transparency, and trust.

“In my talk with American companies, there is a real chance that Gaia-X standards could become a gold standard in cloud services around the world,” Altmaier said.

Despite the project being billed by the EU as very much a European enterprise and part of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s goal of achieving digital sovereignty, US firms are still highlighting a willingness to take part.

“We are strongly committed to making a lasting contribution to the success of Gaia-X as an important platform for digital value creation and strengthening of data-based business models in Europe,” US technology giant Microsoft said in a statement, adding that the company is also ‘in discussions’ about participation in the project.

More broadly, Le Maire noted that the launch of Gaia-X “could not have been more timely,” due in part to the fact that the coronavirus has brought to light the need for Europe to build up its own, independent cloud data infrastructure as a result of the substantial uptake in digital tools during the lockdown period.

Along this axis, a recent study by the Synergy Research Group demonstrated that the Corona-pandemic has not only failed to inflict economic damage to the cloud computing market as it did to most other sectors, but has even had a positive impact, with Amazon and Microsoft being some of the biggest beneficiaries.

In this context, the use of US tools for European data storage operations can have legal ramifications. Via the US CLOUD Act, the American administration has the legal right to force its companies to hand over data belonging to European citizens.

On this point, Le Maire said that any provider within the Gaia-X project will have to inform clients “if data could fall under extraterritorial laws of some countries, for instance the CLOUD Act of the United States”.

Industry reacted positively on Thursday. CISPE, the association of cloud infrastructure services providers in Europe, welcomed the launch. “Europe’s digital single market and European data protection values require high performance, secure and trustworthy cloud infrastructure that benefits all users,” said Alban Schmutz, chair of CISPE.

The basic budget for Gaia-X will be €1.5 million Euro per year, “which is not huge, but sufficient”, Atos’ Hubert Tardieu said on Thursday. His company is one of the 11 French firms participating, alongside other compatriot firms including Orange and EDF. Of the 11 German members, BMW, Deutsche Telekom, and Siemens are all playing a part.

In terms of the ambitious goals of the project unveiled by Le Maire and Altmaier, many backed the need for Europe to better compete with global powers in data infrastructure arena.

Philipp Otto, founder and head of the German think tank iRights.Lab, told EURACTIV that Gaia-X “is not about building a big supertanker that is massive but slow, but about making progress with a network of many small ships.”

“Now it is urgent not only to catch up with China and the USA but to become the international market leader – nothing less should be the ambition,” Otto added.

The project will get fully off the ground in early 2021, with first proofs of concept being available towards the end of 2020.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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