Published: January 30, 2020 2:57:55 pm
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff
The European Union told its members Wednesday that they should limit so-called “high-risk” 5G vendors, a category that includes Chinese tech giant Huawei, but stopped short of recommending a ban on the firm, despite a lengthy and aggressive campaign by the Trump administration.
The recommendations are as far as the European Union can go in dictating policy to its member nations, whose governments will have the final word on whether and how they want to let Huawei help build their next generation of wireless telecommunications networks.
The EU guidance, referred to as the “5G toolbox,” is a key moment in the bloc’s intensive work to help its members decide how to navigate fraught political and technical considerations as they and their wireless carriers prepare to invest billions of dollars in telecommunications infrastructure.
“We can do great things with 5G,” said Margrethe Vestager, a top official of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body. “But only if we can make our networks secure.”
The United States maintains that Huawei poses an espionage threat, as it can be compelled by Chinese law to hand over data or spy on behalf of the Chinese government, and some European officials have voiced similar concerns. The company vehemently rejects the accusations and has repeatedly said it would never engage in espionage.
The British government said Tuesday that it would permit Huawei to develop part of its own next-generation networks. Huawei, considered a high-risk vendor under the British rules, would be limited to 35 per cent of the network and would be kept at arm’s length from some more strategically sensitive infrastructure, such as nuclear power and defense systems.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, commenting on the European Union’s announcement, said, “We’ll have to see what they actually do and, importantly, how they implement what they’ve laid out.
“There is also a chance for the United Kingdom to relook at this as implementation moves forward,” he added.
The European Commission experts recommended that national regulators should enforce some restrictions to protect so-called “core” parts of their networks seen as particularly vulnerable to hacking or espionage.
Countries should “apply relevant restrictions for suppliers considered to be high risk, including necessary exclusions to effectively mitigate risks for key assets,” the commission said.
The twin announcements, in Brussels on Wednesday and London on Tuesday, represent a victory for the Chinese tech giant, which has launched a charm offensive in Europe after it was practically banned from doing business in the United States.
They also highlighted the limited effect of a monthslong, intensive and highly publicized lobbying effort by the Trump administration, which pressured both the European Union as a whole and member countries individually to follow its lead and ban Huawei.
The campaign included multiple visits by senior US officials to Brussels and other European capitals. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote an op-ed, published last month in Politico Europe, that urged European leaders to keep Huawei out of their countries’ networks.
“China steals intellectual property for military purposes,” Pompeo said in May on a trip to London. “It wants to dominate AI, space technology, ballistic missiles and many other areas.”
Germany, the European Union’s biggest and most important economy, is due in the coming months to publish its own decision on how to treat Huawei, a matter that has driven bitter internal debate in the main governing party.
The EU recommendations also come ahead of trade negotiations with the United States that were already likely to be fraught.
Brussels has been treading a fine line between China and the United States, trying to balance and maintain both relationships despite pressure from Washington to pick sides.
The treatment of Huawei also indicates that despite Brexit, which takes effect later this week, London and Brussels may remain largely aligned on strategic issues, even in the face of pressure from the United States.
Still, experts warn that the battle for Huawei isn’t over. In the Czech Republic, for example, cybersecurity authorities have warned against using Huawei in their 5G rollout.
The European Commission guidance will permit outright bans of companies, if that’s what national authorities prefer.
“The toolbox suggests we need to take strategic measures to mitigate these risks — and these strategic measures mention all approaches currently on the table,” said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Center for International Political Economy, a research group based in Brussels.
He added that, despite the European Union’s guidance, Britain’s decision to include Huawei was also a reflection of the country’s large cyberdefense capabilities.
“Other countries may find it cheaper to just ‘rip and replace’ Chinese equipment, or they may have no state secrets to protect vis-à-vis China,” he added.