Why does the European Union not seem to pursue technological independence? While I am just a naïve citizen without deep insight, it seems to me that many technologies that seem critical to both our daily lives and national security are imported, and no longer developed in a visible manner within Europe.

Just think of computers, and what would happen if a country lost access to them. The US, Russia, and several East Asian countries seem to have the capability to produce their own more-or-less competitive computer hardware if need be, but I am not aware of anything within Europe. Not even (smart)phones are made there anymore. The parts of Nokia and Ericsson that could do this in the past are long gone.

Or think of one of the most critical tools we use every day: the internet search engine. The only search engines that actually get any use, and use their own technology, are again American, Russian or East Asian.

The same goes for social networks, which definitely aren't a technology we need, but could be deemed a national security issue. All the ones that are popular in Europe are controlled by American companies. The EU seems to try to regulate how these companies handle private data, but will that ever truly prevent US government access to that data in practice? Having citizens use local technology would be more secure. There used to be popular country-specific social networks in Europe, but all that I knew of are now gone or irrelevant.

Why does the European Union seem to accept such huge technological dependence, mostly on the United States? It would be naïve to think that relations could never worsen, even if the current disagreements may turn out to be only temporary.

Or am I incorrect about this? Do EU countries actually have most of these technologies, even if in a latent form, not visible to consumers? Or perhaps they do try to achieve technological independence but simply fail at it?

  • 50
    Who is this "European Union" you are talking about? The Comission? The European Council? The European Parliament? The major companies in Europe? The people of Europe? The member states of the EU? Which of these parties do you want to do what? Jul 2, 2018 at 13:12
  • 65
    I am not sure if the premise of this question is even true. While Europe isn't that famous for IT products (even though it is home of some notable IT companies, like SAP for example), it is world leader in many areas of mechanical and electric engineering. The pharmaceutical sector is also worth mentioning. Fact is, in the 21st century, no country is really self-sufficient.
    – Philipp
    Jul 2, 2018 at 14:45
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    Although there are little or none strong competitors to companies such as Alphabet, Microsoft, or Amazon I wouldn't exactly call the EU a void for mass consumer digital technology. Spotify, ResearchGate, Mendeley, Skyscanner, Deezer, SoundCloud, Trivago, Booking.com, or even Skype or Shazam until recently (both were bought by US companies). Notice that although the EU is a big market it still suffers from scalability obstacles, most of them due to localization (language and regional differences). EU integration has gone far, but its still not that of a single country (not even close).
    – armatita
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:20
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    If by "European Union," you mean, the government, then part of your premise is false. While search engines, PCs, and social networks are all developed in the US, these are not government projects. They are companies founded by citizens, such as yourself.
    – jpaugh
    Jul 2, 2018 at 20:00
  • 24
    The USA isn't technologically independent either. Almost all of its electronics are manufactured in factories in China. Jul 2, 2018 at 22:35

8 Answers 8


The EU does pursue technological independence. For example, it has assembled its own satellite navigation system so that it does not have to rely on GPS and Glonass.

The EU develops a lot of military hardware (ships, jets, missiles, you name it). The EU also has its own space programme and the ability to put objects in orbit independently.

On the computing front, ARM is (for the moment) an EU company and ARM CPUs are the most common in the world. Europe has huge tech companies like Siemens and Philips.

The EU fined Google heavily for anti-competitive practices that were making it harder for EU companies to compete.

So the suggestion that Europe does not pursue technological independence is simply untrue.

  • 30
    "ARM is (for the moment) an EU company" depends on what you mean by "EU company". It's owned by a Japanese bank. Jul 2, 2018 at 15:59
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    Other companies to add to the list: Ericsson (anyone has heard about that Bluetooth thing?), Siemens, Alcatel. Which have a not-so-potent line of end-consumer products, but that do really well in the infrastructure market. And of course, King of "Candy Crush" fame :-). It seems that the OP did not bother much with research.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:00
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    @PeterTaylor Yes, although it was founded in the UK after it joined the EU and has existed for most of its life inside the EU. Even now it is based in and incorporated in the EU, at least until Brexit hits.
    – user
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:11
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    @PeterTaylor SoftBank isn't really a bank. Jul 2, 2018 at 17:06
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    Galileo is an example being behind. The US (GPS), Russians (GLONASS), Chinese (COMPASS), and even Japanese (QZSS), all managed to get working systems before the EU can. On top of that, ARM is owned by the Japanese (SoftBank) and strictly in IP licensing. Unlike Intel, it's reliant on another company to complete the design and then fabricate it (IBM and AMD can do all but fabricate).
    – user71659
    Jul 3, 2018 at 21:23

It’s not only EU, there is no such thing as a technological independent state anymore. North Korea is the closest one to be. There are enterprises in US and Asia which manufacture nanotechnology, but they depend on world spanning supply chains. They need equipment from e.g. the Netherlands (ASML). ASML is dependent on components from Germany.

So no counties owns all piece of the puzzle to manufacture nanotechnology by its own. The cause for this is that the market for some components is too small to sustain a large number of enterprises. So we have few players which dominate their niche. Building everything by your own is not economical feasible and would cause you to fall behind in technology.

  • 5
    Thanks. I wanted to mention ASML but you already did. Europe makes the machines that make computers (chips), basically. Jul 3, 2018 at 4:58
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    Some of the equipment needed to make semiconductor devices ("chips") is made in Europe. While ASML has ~85% market share in its specific niche (with the balance left to Japanese companies Nikon and Canon), Applied Materials, Lam Research, and KLA-Tencore are examples of large American companies that also provide equipment to the semiconductor industry.
    – njuffa
    Jul 4, 2018 at 2:29

Technological independence is a strategic military goal, not an economic one. One of the basic principles of economics is comparative advantage, which says that trade will benefit both parties if there is a difference between the relative costs of producing different items (so if bread and biscuits cost X and 2X respectively in country A, and Y and 3Y in country B, then A should specialize in biscuits while B specializes in bread, regardless of the values of X and Y).

The EU is an economic organisation not a military one. It has no military goals, and in fact no military at all. Hence technological independence is not a factor in its thinking. It simply looks to increase the advantages of trade between its members.

The various nations that make up the EU each have their own military, and may well pay attention to the ways in which their military capabilities are dependent on other nations.

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    That is a very narrow vision of the EU. It has a common constitution, an EU citizen protocol, common (non-economical) policies, it's own parliament, governance and budget. It currently even has military and policing capabilities (just recently the EII was signed by 9 members - UK included -, and in 2017 PESCO was approved by 25 members). It's not a fully integrated nation, I agree, but it's not exactly NAFTA either. Your definition "It simply looks to increase the advantages of trade between its members." is way off target.
    – armatita
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:53
  • Energy, Environment, Health, Social sciences and humanities, Transport, etc are not military goals. See ec.europa.eu/info/research-and-innovation/research-area_en
    – alephzero
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:44
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    The EU not having a military at all is just half-true. While there is no dedicated EU army, the militaries of the EU members cooperate in the Common Security and Defence Policy. A dedicated EU army is a topic which various EU politicians bring up again from time to time.
    – Philipp
    Jul 2, 2018 at 17:16
  • There's a NATO as well, which isn't the EU but of which most European countries are members.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 3, 2018 at 13:02
  • @armatita the EU does not have a "common constitution". One was proposed but was subsequently rejected. EU law has primacy over Member State law, but generally not over each member states own constitution.
    – Max
    Aug 21, 2018 at 9:58

A full answer would probably take several books.

But in part it's a combination of economics and politics.

  • On the economics side, manufacturing is too expensive in Europe (just like in US), due in large part to high labour costs, but also other costs. Which is why your phones and computer parts are mostly physically made in Asia.

  • On the political - and as a consequence, economic - side, EU has far more regulation, taxes, and general environment that on average tends to be a little less welcoming to start-ups.

    It's easier and more potentially rewarding to be an entrepreneur in US than in Europe. No risk that you'll be taxed at 90% rate (as France tried to do recently). No difficult labour regulations making it impossible to fire bad workers, or to have people work overtime. Extra overhead for things like long parental leaves (which is good for parents and bad for start-ups).

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    China has even less extra overhead things than US. In the US companies can't employ children even to do simple manual tasks (which is good for children and bad for start-ups).
    – Communisty
    Jul 2, 2018 at 13:09
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    "On the economics side, manufacturing is too expensive in Europe" - but manufacturing is not research & development. The countries with the least labor costs are not known as the research powerhouses of the world. So I fail to see why this should be a reason for technological disadvantage. Taxes and more restrictive labor regulation might be a point, but regulations throughout the EU are very different without any of the states being technologically on par with the US. And Israel harbors many high-tech companies and still has quite high regulations and taxations.
    – Thern
    Jul 2, 2018 at 13:43
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    (-1) In fact, Europe has a striving start-up scene, regulation varies a lot from one country to another and is far from the main driver of start-up success. But the implied notion that technology = start-ups is silly to be begin with.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 2, 2018 at 21:55
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    @Relaxed: If you don't want to look at startups, feel free to look at the other side. The top 10 technology companies by market value aren't European either.
    – MSalters
    Jul 3, 2018 at 11:45
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    @Communisty: So, growth-wise we have China > USA > EU, and regulation-wise we have China < USA < EU. I'm not disagreeing with your observation, but it just seems to strengthen the point made, even though I sense that's not your intent.
    – MSalters
    Jul 3, 2018 at 11:47

I'd challenge the premise: The EU (countries) would love to be able to have all strategically important industries at home, but they just don't, and they can't. The economic currents of a globalized economy are beyond the power of nations or alliances, even the U.S. or Europe. They are also elusive to planning. The smart phone revolution was not a strategic plan, at least not by governments or commissions. Facebook wasn't, either.

The E.U does strategically support research in perceived key fields, like the Human Brain Project and others. The results sometimes do not meet the expectations.

"National security" is a soft term, but even the U.S. are certainly more dependent on Asian chip makers than they would like. The U.S. cannot control the globalized economy any more than the E.U: You may remember Obama's futile support for Solyndra or perhaps the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times article about the iPhone jobs which are not coming back (there are simply not enough skilled workers available in the U.S. to produce them).

It would be equally impossible and futile to try to keep perceived key industries in Europe alive, apart from the select few with immediate military use: Europe can build ships, land vehicles, aircraft and rockets, and has its own nuclear fuel cycle. (I know it all sounds terribly old-fashioned, but it still kills people.) Some of them are profitable, some of them aren't, and all of them have been subsidized at times and would be subsidized again should the need arise. Black coal was deemed a strategic asset (for steel — read: war ship/tank — production) and is only now being phased out in Germany. Food is considered a strategic asset and consequently the European food production will be sustained at all cost.

One word to your search engine. Programming a search engine is not rocket science; I believe I could program one for you in a few weeks which would work reasonably well (i.e, let you find stuff). What's harder is to get the ranking algorithm perfect and then earn money with it by serving fitting ads to your viewers. I wouldn't be amazed if the logic weeding out link farms, undue ranking optimization and fakes needs more code than the actual ranking core.

Larry and Sergey went from a trivial web crawler to a first back-link ranking algorithm in a few months in 1996.

  • 2
    As a counterpoint... sure, a search engine today is easy: Hadoop and MapReduce. But, it was not easy, nor obvious, in the early 1990's when Page and Brin came up with what was for that day a fairly radical idea. Nor did Google take off quickly... it took eight to ten years for Google to rise from startup to search and advertising giant... I remember using Google in the late 90's as an occasional option. There are skilled workers in the US to make iPhones, apple just doesn't want to pay them when they can hire Asians for far less. Might cut into their billions of cash.
    – tj1000
    Jul 3, 2018 at 0:10
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    @tj1000 Did you read the article? I'd recommend it. Quotes: "For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal" ... "What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight [...]?" ... "Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed [...] it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. In China, it took 15 days." ... “They’re good jobs, but the [U.S.] doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Jul 3, 2018 at 6:25
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    @tj1000 With respect to the search engines: The idea behind google was surely brilliant, but it is not difficult to reproduce on a basic level. The question was just whether the E.U. is technologically dependent on google's search engine; the answer is, they aren't. They may be dependent on the computing infrastructure of google and amazon (e.g. my son's public school is basically run on google services), even though some data centers are in Northern Europe because it is nice and cold and yet well developed. Still, creating a google/amazon cloud equivalent in Europe would take a few years. Jul 3, 2018 at 6:34

Because the problems you describe are not as serious as you think, and not as likely.

Computers may not be a great example, because wikipedia puts EU countries at 3rd, 6th, 8th, 13th and 15th for computer exports.

However, even if the EU tore down every computer factory that they have, then the situation still wouldn't be that bad.

To address the likelihood of a problem. The EU still would have a diverse range of countries to purchase computers from. Ultimately, countries are not going to refuse to sell computers to the EU unless they are close to war. North Korea imports computers, despite a wide range of sanctions on them. China and the USA are #1 and #2 for computer exports. If the EU alienated one of these two superpowers, they are likely to find the other power is happy to treat them as a close friend.

What is more likely is that the EU may face trade policies that make imported computers a bit more expensive. This is a much more likely, but much less serious problem.

And in terms of the severity of the problem, I think you are overestimating how difficult it would be for the EU to start computer manufacturing if it became necessary. The EU has great primary, secondary and tertiary education, a lot of money, an established manufacturing sector and knowledge of how modern computers are made. If computer scarcity became a problem, the EU would give money to the highly educated and skilled workforce, and tell them to solve the problem.

All the computer exporters know that the EU could create a new manufacturing sector (or revive an old one) if they wanted to. That keeps the EU's trading partners honest - they know that if they try to charge too much, or refuse to sell products, then that would encourage the EU to create a competitor for them.

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    The glaring problem in this analysis is that there's barely such a thing as a "computer" - what really matters are the constituent technologies, particularly the longest lead ones like current-generation semiconductor fabs that take billions of dollars and years to spin up. As pointed out elsewhere, a number of key IP design houses and chip companies are EU based, and there's no shortage of software talent either. It becomes a question more of keeping a not-that-far-from-current fab on-shore, which one of the other answers alleges is the case. Jul 8, 2018 at 15:22
  • @ChrisStratton - Billions sounds like a big number, but for the EU, as a contingency if trading has broken down such that they cannot import semiconductors from anywhere else in the world, I would hardly call it significant.
    – Scott
    Jul 8, 2018 at 23:45
  • It's significant to do in the absence of pressing need - there are really only a handful of latest generation fabs in the world. The problem is that if the need is pressing, you don't have time to build it and spin it up. And hypothetically, in an economic dispute, the moment you decide to and commit to the project, those choking off the supply would re-open the flood gates until you give up at huge loss, then shut them again... Jul 9, 2018 at 0:03

Not necessarily true... Airbus has become a top competitor in a tough and unforgiving tech market: airliners. While longtime airliner makers Douglas and Lockheed folded and left the industry, Airbus entered and thrived. Europe turns out some first rate weapons systems, which is about as tech heavy as it gets. Rolls Royce is a top competitor in the very technical gas turbine engine market... though they won't be with the EU much longer.

One area the EU has fallen short in is software. The only major software today from the EU that I can think of is the German SAP firm, a major player in ERP software.

Almost all of the major software in use today comes out of the US. Databases, open source, HTML and the web browser (Tim Berners-Lee in the UK contributed the web server), text messaging, social media, mobile computing, cloud computing, all were originally designed and implemented in the US. Programming languages are based on English, because almost all were created in the US.

Most of those endeavors were either entrepreneur created or entrepreneur driven. Due to lower levels of regulation, it's a lot easier for an individual or a small group to get their idea to market with enough profit to drive further development in the US than the heavily regulated EU.

One might argue that mobile computing was started by a corporation - Apple - but Apple was being run by a visionary entrepreneur at that time, the same entrepreneur who started Apple. Normally, a major corporation would never have made that sort of investment in such a radical idea, but Jobs ran the company at that time, and was in a position to push it through. For further evidence of this, look at the technical lethargy Apple has slipped into since Jobs died.

  • 4
    Tim Berners-Lee did not just "contribute the web server" but drafted the HTML language and HTTP protocol to transmit it. The seminal programming language Algol was an American-European collaboration. And the smartphone has many mothers and fathers (read The One Device), more than a few Europeans among them (the Finnish Nokia Communicator was one of the first smart phones). Jul 3, 2018 at 7:15
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    MySQL is a European software, Qt is, Linux was developed by some student in Finnland. Jul 3, 2018 at 11:08
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    The Python programming language was developed in the Netherlands by a dutchman and is in use all over the globe. However, if you take a close look into the history and origins of any software product you will find contributions from people all around the world. Let's not forget that most of the giants in the industry have a very international outlook, both in their staffing as in where they operate and develop their products. It truly is a 'human endavour'.
    – Douwe
    Jul 3, 2018 at 11:20
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    @MartinSchröder some would say that 'some student' is an understatement -> en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linus_Torvalds
    – Communisty
    Jul 3, 2018 at 12:57
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    @Communisty: How so? Looks like a completely accurate description of him at that time. Jul 3, 2018 at 17:45

I guess there's no benefit to pursuing "independence" like that. IMO the question is like asking, "Why doesn't Bill Gates mow his own grass? What would happen, if he lost access to a gardener?"

I gather from the news, for example, that what keeps Iran from having military nuclear weapons is centrifuges -- i.e. that you need a lot of good centrifuges to separate fissile Uranium. IMO a country like Germany for example isn't officially 'a nuclear power', but looking at its industries I think it would obviously be able to manufacture any tools like that (i.e. like centrifuges) that it might ever need.

Your mentioning "Facebook" implies to me that you're picking the (few?) areas in which 'American' companies dominate, and asking, "Why doesn't Europe compete?" I presume that Facebook is trivial technology: merely a web site, a famous name, and users. Everyone these days (i.e. Europeans too) knows how to write "web-scale" sites. The leading cloud providers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft) are OK or leading-edge at what they do, but IMO what they do is just (or is mostly only) a matter of money -- i.e. anyone could do that, if they had to and were willing to pay more, to do it more expensively than buying off-the-shelf from the incumbents (e.g. governments presumably do run their own relatively expensive, private, secure, computer networks and servers).

Also Google for example has development offices in Europe -- in Switzerland, and so on. My guess is that if (hypothetically) America ever went dark, off the grid, the fundamental technology or know-how is well distributed globally. If it isn't commercially viable to compete against Google -- and they have a lot of trade secrets, and own a lot of assets (hardware, intellectual property, and human resources) -- but even so IMO it would be technologically feasible to deploy a inferior national-scale replacement implementation in the event of a national emergency.

IMO there's limited national advantage to "owning" something like Facebook (one could argue that it obviously didn't do America any good). Web and software companies (like Amazon or Uber) have a bit of first-mover advantage, and spend a lot of money (i.e. are unprofitable) to get there -- usually private money, rather than government subsidies and investments -- but even so have local competition which could take over if the 'American' company disappeared.

The internet itself is distributed --- a country can be cut off from others and still have its own web sites: which is maybe more important for countries like China (has a firewall and censorship, and ambitions of its own) and Russia (may face sanctions).

If the governments (e.g. EU) are going to spend money on subsidising any industry, there are other industries that are more "strategic" than you ones you mentioned -- e.g. the national power grid; public transportation (including trains) and roads; agriculture (including "food security"); national health (medical research and deployment); national education; the telecommunications grid; the tax office and the police force; etc.

I'd argue too that laws and regulations (political science) are an important technology, and are the proper domain (sphere of interest and influence) of national governments, and something which the EU does pursue "independently".

And Europe does invest some in far-out R&D -- outer space; nuclear fusion; CERN; not to mention military (and medical and industrial) devices.

And countries do (to a certain extent) maintain some independent social media (propaganda outlets) too -- e.g. the newspapers, TV stations, radio broadcasters aren't all foreign, they may have some indigenous movie production too, and any number of non-English-language web sites and/or government web sites that you won't have heard of.

Do EU countries actually have most of these technologies, even if in a latent form, not visible to consumers? Or perhaps they do try to achieve technological independence but simply fail at it?

I think they have technological ability.

And that what they don't have is the political will to spend national money, to subsidise "private industry", to try to ensure that their "national" companies become world-leaders in every industry.

Some of "their" "national" companies are (already, naturally) world leaders in their industries (Rolls Royce for jet engines).

I guess they have neither the (financial) capacity nor the political will required to subsidise (or inflate) an ambition to be "world-class" (or world leaders) in every industry.

That's more-or-less true of every country, I think -- every country has some industries or market niches in which it's out-competed in the world market.

  • "implies to me that you're picking the (few?) areas in which 'American' companies dominate" No, I was picking the few that were visible to me, while admitting that I probably don't see the whole story. Also, for all examples I showed, both Russia and some Asian countries (China, Korea, etc.) are competitive.
    – Rik
    Jul 3, 2018 at 13:38
  • As for Facebook, that part of the question was motivated by these technologies being a huge national security issue. Have you been to China recently? Look at the power of Tencent there, the staggering amount of data they collect about everyone, how they're cooperate with the Chinese government (e.g. part in development of social credit). Now look at how they push the same technologies abroad (e.g. WeChat in India), and you will immediately see all of Facebook/Google/Twitter, etc. being American-controlled in a very different light.
    – Rik
    Jul 3, 2018 at 13:41
  • I meant that I didn't see Facebook as very high-technology: so it's not that the EU lacks "technological" know-how or independence. I expect that national security agencies already see what we post on Facebook if ever they want to -- e.g. via legislative control (e.g. a court order to the user database), or other means (surveillance of the nation's telecom data). But if you wanted to ask about the EU's response (or lack of it) to the fact of Facebook's user database being weaponized as a tool for political control, you might ask (or might have asked) a more specific question IMO.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:20
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    Sentences in the question like, "Just think of computers, and what would happen if a country lost access to them" had me thinking you were asking about nations' preserving a capacity to produce strategic-important technology locally; rather than being a question about privacy, about social media as an instrument of political control, etc.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:24
  • The Iranian uranium centrifuges actually were made by a German company. (Or at least their control systems. Stuxnet, the virus which was supposed to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, was specifically targeting Siemens S7-300 SCADA systems)
    – Philipp
    Jul 4, 2018 at 9:09

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