Europe and the U.S. are squaring off over tech. Joe Biden wouldn’t change that.

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As U.S. voters head to the polls, optimists on both sides of the Atlantic hold out hope for a revival of the transatlantic relationship.

They should brace for disappointment — especially on tech.

Over the past few months, tensions between Europe and the United States in the digital realm have ratcheted up to levels not seen since Edward Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. intelligence gathering.

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From a Washington-led pressure campaign on 5G security to Europe’s plans for digital taxes and the collapse of a transatlantic data protection agreement, the EU and the U.S. have been drifting apart over technology for years. Now Europe’s “tech sovereignty” agenda — which aims to rein in the power of U.S. tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon and foster local alternatives — threatens to make the split permanent. 

The presidential campaign has been largely devoid of foreign policy, much less pesky questions about data flows, so the convulsions in transatlantic tech remain a preoccupation for U.S. policy wonks and industry officials.

But for those wonks and officials charged with securing access to Europe’s rich markets, there is growing alarm. The EU’s moves to keep data in the bloc, and away from cloud storage providers like Amazon and Microsoft, have proved particularly concerning.

“Tech sovereignty is moving from talking points to actual policy. That’s definitely a concern,” said an official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who asked not to be named while discussing diplomatic issues.

Frosty relations

Unless there’s a thaw in tech cooperation, officials on both sides acknowledge it will be hard to forestall a digital-first trade war, or even preserve a united front on the idea of a free and open internet. If that comes to pass, both agree that the winners of such a conflict would be trade rivals such as China and India.

Yet the appetite to bridge those gaps, so far, has been lacking.

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Campaign representatives for both Joe Biden and President Donald Trump declined to answer questions on their plans for the EU. Republican and Democratic operatives gave eerily similar responses when asked how the transatlantic relationship could improve: Europe had to move first, they said, because the demands — on privacy, tax and surveillance among other gripes — come from Brussels.

Not surprisingly, Europeans disagreed. A German official said it was “up to the United States to clean up its act.” Others pointed to Trump’s presidency as a lasting poison for transatlantic relations.

“On the government-to-government level things are very tense, very difficult, with low trust,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch former MEP and international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. “There has been a lot of confrontation since President Trump entered the White House and literally attacked the EU, putting a kind of pressure on the transatlantic relationship that has never been seen since World War II. But it’s not all black and white.”

Amid the dour mood, officials on both sides do concede there is scope for improvement. As the world awaits the results of the election, here’s a quick guide to the main issues dogging the transatlantic relationship, and their prospects for change:

Digital tax

Europe and the U.S. have fundamentally different views on where Big Tech should pay taxes. Some countries like France believe tech companies avoid paying their fair share of taxes, while Washington believes the EU’s initiative unfairly punishes U.S. tech companies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of rich countries, was tasked with coming up with a plan to tax tech giants with multilateral buy-in, but is unlikely to reach agreement by the end of this year. As a result, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Paris would start collecting a digital services tax in December (other officials later said the deadline was January). Speaking to French media, he hinted that a Biden presidency could help to defuse mounting tensions over the tax.

But U.S. officials are skeptical. Trump administration officials have been explicit that they will trigger tariffs if any country starts levying the tax, while experts argue that a Biden presidency would be unlikely to take a fundamentally different approach. While a change in leadership could delay Washington pulling the trigger on tariffs, the gun remains on the table, waiting for the next president to pick it up.

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Data flows

There is a bit more optimism on this front. Negotiations between the European Commission and the U.S. have been ongoing ever since the Court of Justice of the EU in July struck down the agreement, known as Privacy Shield, that governs EU-U.S. data flows. But the result is unlikely to satisfy European privacy advocates like Max Schrems, who brought the case in the first place, and call for an overhaul of U.S. snooping and data protection laws.

While Biden has said the U.S. should set privacy standards “not unlike the Europeans,” federal privacy legislation would take years to enact, if it is ever approved at all. As for the prospect of overhauling intelligence laws, U.S. officials have been quick to dismiss it. 

However, some Obama-era officials argue there is a third way that could satisfy the EU. They point to presidential policy directives issued under Barack Obama that offer safeguards on surveillance. “These need to be codified into law,” said Cam Kerry, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s former general counsel who helped to broker the Safe Harbor deal that preceded Privacy Shield (and was also struck down). “The remedies [for Europeans seeking to assert their privacy rights in the U.S.] need to be addressed as well. But doing those things would be beneficial for the EU-U.S. relationship, and frankly for the rest of the world.”

Artificial Intelligence

Defining rules and principles for artificial intelligence is both an obstacle and an opportunity in the transatlantic relationship. Many Americans see Europe’s rush to unveil binding rules for AI as premature and innovation-stifling. Both Biden and his pick for vice president, Kamala Harris, have been known for taking a friendlier stance toward Big Tech than their counterparts on the left of the Democratic Party.

That said, Harris has shown interest in addressing algorithmic bias and Biden’s campaign promises to “ensure the technologies of the future like AI are bound by laws and ethics.”

Under Trump, Washington has shown it sees AI as a crucial geopolitical issue, joining in the Global Partnership on AI, a discussion forum at the OECD which seeks to define international principles for AI. The work is set to continue regardless of who’s elected, giving Europe and the U.S. a shared leadership role on the subject.

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China

Countering China is a strategic priority for both and could allow Europe and the United States to move closer, particularly in developing principles and standards on technology. Europe has already gone a long way toward imposing tougher standards on 5G vendors — with some strong encouragement from the U.S. — and several countries are imposing effective bans on the equipment of Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell agreed over the summer to join a dialogue on China with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which could bolster cooperation.

It’s unclear exactly how Biden will address 5G security, or if he will pursue the Trump administration’s withering anti-Huawei “Clean Network” campaign. But he has pledged to work with “fellow democracies” to develop rules on cybercrime, data protection and intellectual property theft. For Europeans who have been stung by Trump, that’s a tempting invitation.

Antitrust

The EU and the U.S.’s views on reining in Big Tech appear to converge. Under Trump, U.S. state attorneys general have opened several probes against tech companies, bringing the U.S. closer into line with the EU’s approach. In a Justice Department investigation into Google, the U.S. is looking both to learn from Europe and avoid the pitfalls of remedies that have done little to bolster competition. A more synchronized approach to antitrust enforcement, as with Microsoft in the early 2000s, could bring change, and a recent House Judiciary Committee report backed by Democrats advocates far-reaching remedies for perceived dominance.

But Biden himself has so far been discrete about his plans on Big Tech, with some saying Europe and the U.S. could come together on lower-hanging fruit: content moderation, for which Biden has advocated regulation, in line with what the EU is doing with the Digital Services Act.

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