German parties offer conflicting views on the EU digital future

Once termed a “digital developing country” by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the last German government has already made digitalisation one of its top priorities and passed numerous laws and regulations in the last legislative term. [SHUTTERSTOCK/metamorworks]

Digitalisation is one of the hot topics of Germany’s upcoming federal election and the parties are offering different visions of what Germany’s role in EU digital policymaking should be and the ways to foster digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

After the outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel described Germany as a “digital developing country” in 2017 the last coalition government has started to make digitalisation one of its top priorities and passed numerous laws and regulations.

Ahead of the 26 September federal election, EURACTIV has asked the German parties to clarify their stance on how they perceive Germany’s future role in EU digital policymaking and on European digital sovereignty.

National vs European approach 

The current CDU-SPD government has consistently portrayed itself as a forerunner in European digital policy and has passed national regulations with a similar scope as some of the regulative proposals currently debated on the EU level – like the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

Lawmakers from the CDU/CSU and the SPD emphasise the leading role of German digital legislation and refer to the German approach as the one setting the bar for the overall EU digital policy.

“The discussion surrounding the legislative proposals of the DSA and the DMA is following the model of the German regulations for the most part,” a representative of the SPD told EURACTIV.

The CDU is especially eager to make sure that the regulations of the DMA and the DSA are not falling short of the level of protection of their German counterparts and says the party will now bring the experience they have on the national level into the European debate.

However, the Greens, the liberal FDP, and the Left Party are all critical of this “forerunner-approach” and prefer to address issues of digital policy on the European rather than on the national level.

The Greens define the current policy approach of the incumbent SPD-CDU coalition as “uncoordinated” and emphasise that digital policy must be embedded in a broader European context, instead of putting forward national legislation.

“The national attempts to regulate the digital space would only create legal uncertainty for businesses, as these rules have to be sooner or later adjusted to the European legislative framework,” the Green party told EURACTIV.

The liberal FDP, which polls suggest might play a kingmaker role after the election, follows a similar line of critique. “Disparities between national and European legislation overcomplicate the application of law and will create more bureaucratic hurdles for businesses, which is especially affecting SMEs”, the FDP told EURACTIV.

The roadmap to digital sovereignty

One of the European Commission’s top priorities is to enhance Europe’s sovereignty and strategic autonomy, making the bloc less dependent on technologies from other parts of the world.

During the German EU presidency in the second half of 2020, the government had already put this goal on the top of their agenda.

While all German parties agree that the quest for European digital sovereignty is of uttermost importance and that Germany can only preserve and further develop its international position in close collaboration with the EU and its member states, the answer to the question of how to achieve this varies considerably among parties.

For the SPD, digital sovereignty is only feasible if done as a common European “feat of strength.”

Their main aim is to preserve and expand European digital sovereignty by financially supporting European and German digital businesses in all technology sectors – from quantum technology to semiconductor production – and along the entire supply chain.

In a similar vein, the CDU stresses the need for massive investments in the tech sector, by incentivising private actors through public subsidies and funding programmes. However, for the Christian Democrats, Europe and Germany should avoid any isolationist behaviour, as this would hamper the development of a vibrant digital market economy.

The Greens agree digital sovereignty should not entail any form of technological protectionism but they stress it is not just about investments but also about setting international standards to export European values on a global scale.

Furthermore, the Green party argues that investment programmes in the digital sector should be more Europeanised and that the potential of digitalisation for the socio-ecological transition must be fully used.

The FDP, on the other hand, bets on the introduction of a German ministry for digital transformation to accelerate the efforts to digitalise the German public and private sector and to ensure a more coordinated approach to digitalisation.

The liberals also stress that digital sovereignty is closely linked to internet access. They contend that broadband infrastructure must be massively expanded via a demand-driven incentive system and the reduction of bureaucracy to guarantee German digital sovereignty.

The Left Party, for its part, is primarily concerned about the dependency of the public administration on Big Tech services and advocates for a switch to open-source software, which they say could set new standards in the private sector and increase the resilience of the IT infrastructure.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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