By | November 14, 2023
Behind Europe's submarine internet cable agenda

Undersea cables carry the majority of the world’s internet traffic, but as concerns grow about malicious actors moving to cripple or disrupt internet infrastructure, the European Union has a number of its own projects under way, underpinned by hidden political dynamics.

Undersea fiber-optic cables facilitate 99% of global Internet traffic, according to telecommunications research firm TeleGeography, making them a crucial, if invisible, part of our society.

In recent years, the question of how these networks could be targeted to stop communications and information sharing, and even wiretapping, has been central to international tensions between the US and China.

This geopolitical dimension of transcontinental cables inevitably becomes intertwined with commercial interests, as it is expensive to deploy internet cables for thousands of kilometers, and Big Tech companies have increasingly entered the game with their own projects.

In Europe, ensuring the resilience of critical underwater infrastructure is a sensitive topic since the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline last September. EU Commissioner Thierry Breton has since pushed an agenda for secure connectivity that combines a diversification of internet connections and satellite-based communications.

However, the way the EU executive has selected and designed such projects has irritated some European countries, which want to pursue their own agendas and companies.

Underwater cable pipeline

The Global Gateway, Europe’s strategy to finance international projects in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, earmarked around €30 billion in digital connectivity projects such as underwater and terrestrial fiber optic cables, space-based secure communication systems and data centers.

The lion’s share of EU funding to third countries is directed to Africa, where currently the main official project for EU-Africa relations is Medusa, which connects southern Europe with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia via the Mediterranean.

According to a presentation the commission gave to national representatives in April, another project is under consideration: the EurAfrica Gateway, which would run from the Iberian Peninsula along West Africa’s Atlantic coast through the Gulf of Guinea to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The intention is to connect underserved countries and build relationships with strategic partners in the region such as Nigeria, the most populous African country where the Commission pledged to spend €820 million on digital projects.

Latin America and the Caribbean is another area of ​​interest. The initial plan is to expand the BELLA program, which includes EllaLink from Portugal to Brazil through to Colombia and Peru, Caribbean islands such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic and even up to Mexico via Central America.

Another proposal for which the EU would have funding available is Far North Fiber, an internet cable to connect Scandinavia to Japan via the Arctic to avoid major choke points such as the Suez Channel and the South China Sea, which was revealed by EURACTIV last October.

The EU is already planning a potential project extension that would connect Japan to the Philippines, although there is no funding available for this part. Similarly, the EU considers this Artic cable connection with the Humboldt cable from Japan to Chile via Australia.

Another unbudgeted proposal is the Southern Asia Connectivity, which would connect Taiwan to Thailand via Indonesia and avoid the South China Sea at the center of military tension between Beijing and its neighbors.

Southern Asia Connectivity would link to South Africa and the Indo-Pacific route starting from Thailand with a landing in India. Another EU project would link India to the Medusa cable in the Mediterranean, with a landing in Kenya.

Political dynamics

However, questions remain about how the European Commission plans these international projects and distributes the funding.

“Global Gateway projects are designed, developed and implemented in close collaboration and consultation with partner countries. Infrastructure projects will be based on the needs and opportunities they identify for their local economies and communities, as well as the EU’s own strategic interests,” a spokesperson said for the Commission to EURACTIV.

Another EU official told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity: “There is no reason for the investments. The decision-making is not fair or transparent and takes place behind closed doors.”

For example, it is unclear why the EurAfrica Gateway would stop at the Democratic Republic of the Congo and not complete the circle until South Africa, which would make commercial sense.

“Lobbying certainly plays a big role,” admitted a second EU official.

In March 2021, the Council of the European Union adopted a Ministerial Declaration on European Data Gateways, which included a series of calls for action so that “new, secure cable infrastructures can benefit from sources of growth in the European neighborhood and the Western Balkans, the Arctic region, Africa, South and Southeast Asia .”

Although the declaration provided the political impetus for the Commission to prioritize the topic, for some EU capitals the Commission is following its own agenda rather than the path set out in the Declaration.

A third EU official pointed out that the Commission is actively engaging with stakeholders to promote submarine cable projects. However, although European companies such as telecom operators and financial institutions are often interested, the involvement of member states is limited.

In fact, many EU countries that are not strategically located or are landlocked have little interest in the geopolitics of internet cables. The member states that are involved are usually feathering their own nest.

For example, France has strong economic ties with the former colonies of West Africa and the overseas territories of the Indo-Pacific region. Portugal is positioning itself as an international data hub linking Europe with Latin America and West Africa.

Finland has vehemently advocated the Arctic cable, which sees the Finnish company Cinia in the lead. So far, Helsinki has won the Stockholm-supported competing project Polar Connect.

In other words, just as Europe’s increased attention to underwater infrastructure is a reaction to the embittered geopolitical context, the decision about which geographic areas to prioritize is also an opaque mix of commercial interests and political dynamics.

(Editing by Alice Taylor)

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