Huawei is a leader in 5G technology, but Europe remains cautious. Photo: Reuters

On Tuesday, the EU Parliament passed a resolution that urged European institutions and member countries to tackle the security threat posed by China’s growing technological presence in Europe.

The document, which is not binding, will influence the ongoing debate on whether to exclude Chinese tech giant Huawei from developing European 5G communications platforms.

The legislative body of the European Union did not call for a preemptive ban on Huawei’s 5G technology, but rather for reinforcing the bloc’s existing cybersecurity regulations and protection.

To minimize the impact of Chinese high-tech firms when it comes to 5G procuring, and to reduce Europe’s dependence on foreign cybersecurity technology, EU countries were urged to acquire next-generation mobile equipment from different vendors, or introduce “multi-phase procurement processes.”

The European Commission – the EU executive branch – and the Union’s security agencies were also called to ensure that 5G networks in Europe met the highest security standards.

One of the proponents of the resolution, European Greens co-chair Reinhard Bütikofer, who is also a member of the EU Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, told Asia Times that while the document refrained from explicitly calling for a ban on Huawei’s 5G sales, the text did not exclude it either.

“The resolution puts very high emphasis on the need to protect European infrastructure and industries against any possible security risk,” he said.

Seeking a common position

With Tuesday’s vote, the EU lawmakers emphasized the need for common European action to deal with current concerns related to Chinese state-owned or state-funded telecom equipment providers. In this respect, they called on the European Commission to take into account their requests when it discusses EU strategy towards China next week.

“We hope that the resolution will encourage European governments to avoid superficial approaches that would not suffice to deal with the issue,” Bütikofer said. “Member states still differ in their approaches, but hopefully the EU Parliament’s document can be helpful towards achieving a common position.”

The EU grouping is concerned that the Chinese government could spy on or sabotage European critical infrastructure and communication systems through “backdoors” incorporated into Huawei’s equipment. The Europeans say China’s domestic security laws compel all citizens, companies and other entities to cooperate with the state to safeguard the country’s security – a claim the Chinese government and some observers deny.

The EU rang the alarm bell over the use of Chinese telecom technology last December when the Czech Republic issued a warning against security threats posed by equipment and services provided by Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese tech company.

Based on such concerns, the Czech government excluded Huawei from an auction to build a tax portal in January. The same month, Poland’s authorities arrested a Chinese employee of Huawei and a former Polish security official on spying allegations.

Pressed by the US

EU institutions understand that 5G infrastructure will boost connectivity in the digital economy, particularly in sectors such as transport, energy, health, defense and security. This is the reason the EU Parliament wants an investigation into possible security risks associated with the use of third-country technologies.

But the EU faces a conundrum with regard to Huawei. The Chinese firm is said to offer the best 5G technology at the moment, and its exclusion from the EU auctions would likely lead to extra costs and delays in building national 5G networks.

Furthermore, a battle against Huawei would inevitably cause a spat with the Chinese government. Beijing is a key trading partner for the EU bloc, and the two parties are on the same page about defending free trade and multilateralism, which are threatened by US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies.

Moreover, the Huawei case opens a new front in the increasingly complex dialogue between the EU and Beijing. On March 5, for instance, the EU Council approved a new mechanism to vet inbound foreign direct investments (FDI), which is clearly aimed at China. The screening framework will enter into force in April and is particularly focused on FDI in European critical infrastructure and technologies, including next-generation mobile networks.

The United States has repeatedly urged European allies to ban Huawei from 5G tenders. According to US media reports, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell warned Berlin last week against allowing Huawei or other Chinese high-tech companies to build its 5G mobile network. Otherwise, the Germans would be prevented from sharing intelligence with US security agencies.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argued that “if all EU countries refuse to ban Huawei from their 5G networks, the US may be irritated, but it probably will not take punitive measures.”

The path charted by the EU Parliament with its resolution about China’s rising technological prowess could help defuse tensions between the US and its European allies. Ultimately, the European grouping is working on a common position on the Huawei issue to cope with both Washington and Beijing.

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