Behind the European agenda for undersea internet cables

Undersea cables account for the majority of the world’s internet traffic, but with growing concerns about malicious actors moving to cripple or interfere with internet infrastructure, the European Union has a number of projects of its own underway, supported by hidden political dynamics.

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

In recent years, the question of how these networks could be targeted to disrupt communications and information exchange, and even eavesdropping, has been central to international tensions between the United States and China.

This geopolitical dimension of transcontinental cables is inevitably intertwined with commercial interests, as distributing Internet cables over thousands of miles is expensive and Big Tech companies have increasingly come into the picture with their own projects.

In Europe, ensuring the resilience of critical underwater infrastructure has been a sensitive topic since the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline last September. European Commissioner Thierry Breton has since promoted a secure connectivity agenda that combines a diversification of internet connections and satellite communications.

However, the way the EU executive has selected and designed such projects has irked some European countries, who want to push their own agendas and companies.

Undersea cable pipeline

The Global Gateway, the European strategy for financing international projects in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has allocated about 30 billion in digital connectivity projects such as submarine and terrestrial fiber optic cables, secure communication systems in the space and data center.

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

Another project is under consideration, according to a presentation the Commission gave to national representatives in April: 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 links with strategic partners in the region such as Nigeria, the most populous African country where the Commission has promised to spend 820 million on digital projects.

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

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

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

Another unforeseen proposal is the Southern Asia Connectivity, which connects Taiwan to Thailand through Indonesia, avoiding the South China Sea at the center of military tension between Beijing and its neighbors.

The South Asian connectivity would link up with the South African and Indo-Pacific route starting from Thailand with a landing in India. Another EU project would link India up to the Medusa cable in the Mediterranean Sea, with a landing in Kenya.

political dynamics

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

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

Another EU official told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity: There is no justification for the investments. The decision-making process is neither fair nor transparent and takes place behind closed doors”.

For example, it is unclear why the EurAfrica Gateway would stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and not come full circle to South Africa, which would make commercial sense.

Lobbying certainly plays a role, acknowledged a second EU official.

In March 2021, the Council of the EU adopted a Ministerial Statement on European Data Gateways, which included a set of calls for action for new secure cable infrastructure to benefit from sources of growth in the European Neighborhood and the Western Balkans, in the Arctic region, in Africa, South and Southeast Asia.

While the statement gave the Commission the political impetus to prioritize the topic, for some EU capitals the Commission follows its own agenda rather than the path outlined in the statement.

A third EU official stressed that the Commission is actively engaging with stakeholders to promote submarine cable projects. But while European companies such as telecom operators and financial institutions are often affected, the commitment of member states is limited.

Indeed, many EU countries that are not strategically located or are landlocked have little interest in the geopolitics of internet cables. Member States that are busy are, more often than not, feathering their nest.

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

Finland has vehemently supported the Arctic cable, which is led by the Finnish company Cinia. So far, Helsinki has prevailed over a competing Stockholm-backed project called Polar Connect.

In other words, just as Europe’s growing focus on subsea infrastructure is a reaction to a tightening geopolitical environment, deciding which geographic areas to prioritize is also an opaque mix of commercial interests and political dynamics.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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