Two decades ago, countries saw global trade in technology goods and services as an on-ramp to the economy of the 21st century. International agreements to eliminate barriers to trade in technology goods and services helped enable dramatic increases in technology trade, while countries looked to promote foreign investment in the cutting-edge technologies of the future. Consumers everywhere got access to new, lower-priced technology, millions of jobs were created and businesses from Paris to Pittsburgh have been able to reach new customers around the world, generating trillions of dollars in sales.
Times have changed: We’re all using digital tools, and recognizing the risks of abuse and the need for responsible innovation. But while well-crafted regulation can help unlock the benefits of technology, an explosion in national policies is detering trade in technology. Those barriers include not just tariffs (which have also beset other sectors), but also trade controls, discriminatory taxes, investment restrictions and novel digital regulations aimed straight at foreign-headquartered companies. In short, we’re seeing the erosion of a carefully nurtured global trading system that has contributed to progress and prosperity in the U.S. and around the world.
This erosion of trade norms isn’t limited to the U.S.-China relationship. Even more concerningly, the technology trade relationship between the U.S. and Europe — once one of the closest in the world — is fraying.
In Washington, in recent years, “transatlantic tech policy” has been largely reduced to pressing Europe to follow U.S. supply chain initiatives. Meanwhile Europe has undertaken a broad series of unilateral initiatives in areas ranging from digital taxes to market regulation. Transatlantic coordination has largely become an afterthought, if it’s thought of at all.
These policy trends hurt both the U.S. and European economies, risking the 16 million jobs on both sides of the Atlantic linked to transatlantic trade and investment. They also make it harder for the U.S. and the EU to address new global technology challenges and partner with emerging economies in Asia.
But there’s a better path forward. Coming out of the pandemic, with new momentum behind bilateral cooperation, we have a chance to revitalize the transatlantic technology trade relationship.
The European Commission recently proposed an EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC). The United States should accept the invitation — and build on it. An expedited high-level trade dialogue on technology issues is critical to avoid unilateral approaches on pressing issues like data flows that are essential to commerce, regulation of digital platforms that we all use every day, and other essential components of a modern economy. A TTC could also prevent divergence on emerging areas like artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies and promote cooperation on third-country technology challenges.
Of course a TTC needs to be set up for success. When entering trade negotiations, each side typically avoids preemptive or unilateral actions that might foreclose meaningful alignment. In entering a TTC, both sides should commit to meaningful consultation before taking any further actions harming transatlantic tech trade. The U.S. should not enact new privacy or technology trade control regulations without consulting with the EU; the EU should pursue bilateral consultation to ensure technology initiatives like the Digital Markets Act reflect the EU-U.S. values-based alliance. Quickly forming a TTC can help drive a consistent and non-discriminatory approach on these challenging new areas of technology regulation.
The need for alignment has never been greater or more urgent. An aligned approach will promote more tech-enabled economic growth; tech-supported measures to tackle other shared challenges like climate change; and new norms to ensure that technology will — in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken — “protect your privacy, make the world safer and healthier, and make democracies more resilient.”
The historic partnership between Europe and the U.S. faces a profound challenge — but also an opportunity to re-build based on shared values of openness and connectivity. As European Commission Executive Vice-President Dombrovskis said recently: “The bottom line is simple: whatever challenges the EU and U.S. face, there is no stronger values-based alliance in the world … So, even if the current crisis feeds the temptation to look inward, this is not the answer.” We couldn’t agree more.
Karan Bhatia is an American attorney and former senior official in the Bush administration.
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