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Navigating 5G Security: The European Union's Approach to Huawei and EU-China Relations



This article intends to evaluate the European Union's approach in addressing the security concerns surrounding 5G networks and the concurrent emergence of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant. It examines the securitization process implemented by the EU in response to pressure from the U.S. government to ban Huawei technologies. Moreover, the analysis will spotlight the diverse policies implemented by the EU concerning 5G technology, situating them within the larger framework of EU-China relations.

What is the 5G?

5G, the "5th generation mobile network”, is an advanced communication technology surpassing its predecessors in efficiency and versatility. The 5G networks facilitate the integration of disparate networks into a unified infrastructure, fostering the connectivity of an extensive array of devices, thereby laying the groundwork for the ubiquitous "Internet of Things" paradigm: numerous items are concurrently linked to the Internet. Leading providers of 5G services and equipment include Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung and Huawei. By 2017, many European telecommunications firms had contracted with Huawei for the equipment essential for erecting 5G networks. Huawei, founded by Chinese entrepreneur Ren Zhengfei, has penetrated global markets with streamlined manufacturing processes, reducing production costs and making high-quality technologies economically accessible. Its growth is fueled by a robust business model, substantial investments in R&D, support from the Chinese government, but also intellectual property infringements. According to a report by the New York Times, Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese conglomerate, collectively held approximately 40% of the global 5G infrastructure market share in 2020.

The United States' way to Huawei

The U.S. was the first to identify Huawei as a national security threat for its connection with the Chinese Communist Party, yet U.S. policymakers harbored an additional concern. Huawei stood poised to emerge as the preeminent provider of global 5G technologies, gaining a central role in global communication networks. While, until that juncture, as evidenced by the Snowden case, the United States had intercepted data from the global communication networks by virtue of its central position within these networks, thereby exercising a panoptic influence, now China risks attaining analogous power through the deployment of Huawei's infrastructure, potentially supplanting Western dominance. This is the reason why in 2019 U.S. administration weaponized global economic networks, encompassing critical supply chains, like microchips, and the financial system, to impede Huawei's growth and expansion. Additionally, Trump administration initiated a pressure tactics on allies, threatening to curtail their access to vital intelligence unless they ban Huawei technologies.

The awakening of Europe

The EU's focus on 5G security and dependencies on Huawei partly stemmed from American pressure, although underlying long-term trends had already prompted the EU to reassess its strategic approach to China. Before 2010, European policymakers predominantly viewed China as an economic opportunity, believing that economic engagement would also influence the behavior of the Chinese regime. However, there has been a notable shift in rhetoric, characterizing China as a strategic rival across various policy domains. This reflects a process of collective securitization, wherein the EU has assumed the role of a securitizing actor perceiving China and 5G infrastructure as potential threats. It employed various securitizing moves, speech acts and practices by the European Commission, Parliament, and Council, to identify and address these threats. The collective securitization of China and 5G have been driven by long-term trends like a more proactive Chinese foreign policy, economic tensions, and the EU's economic decline. Additionally, the behavior of China in specific events such as the Ukraine conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated this process. Consequently, the EU framed both China as a threat in various policy spheres, particularly in 5G infrastructure security, and highlighted the security risks of 5G network in general as well. However, member states (the active audience) have interpreted the message differently, leading to varied implementation of policies based on their individual perceptions of the threats posed by China.

The EU’s way to Huawei

The European Union's competence in 5G is distributed between the Union and its member states and it intersects with aspects of the internal market, justice and home affairs, and security. Moreover, security concerns in 5G networks have evolved into a matter of international politics transcending their inherent technological scope. Regarding digital governance, the EU has adopted a dual policy agenda, elucidated by Professor A. Newman: a market-making strategy, crafting rules and institutions to foster competition and promote the internal market, and a market-correcting strategy, enacting laws and regulations designed to safeguard European citizens. However, the market-making approach (Directives that liberalized market equipment and network access) hasn't necessarily led to a core industry in the sector, while the EU achieved better results inspiring regulators inside and outside Europe. The primary corpus of regulations guiding EU action in the realm of 5G includes: first, the legal frameworks for electronic communications (European Code on Electronic Communication); second, provisions governing network and information system security (NIS-Directive that established a legal regime for the operators of essential digital service providers); and third, the cybersecurity regulations (Cybersecurity Act and the Cyber Resilience Act, that established a framework for cybersecurity certification for telecommunications products that companies want to offer to the European market).

The EU’s performance

In 2016, the EU initiated its foray into the realm of 5G with the release of the “Action Plan for 5G” by the Commission. Notably, this initial endeavor did not explicitly address national security concerns; rather, it underscored the strategic opportunities inherent in 5G technology. Therefore, we can interpret it as the Commission's inaugural effort to orchestrate a unified approach to this emerging technology, primarily coordinating national actions and policies.

By 2019, the EU shifted its approach to 5G and Huawei. The European Parliament issued a document entitled "Security Threat Connected with the Rising Chinese Technological Presence in the EU, while the Commission's publication, "China-Eu a Strategic Outlook, characterized China as a systemic rival. This narrative underscored the risks associated with Chinese investment in critical strategic assets within Europe, notably 5G infrastructure. Subsequently, the Commission released recommendation on the cybersecurity of 5G networks, recognizing 5G as a pillar of the Digital Single Market. These recommendations delineated goals, measures, and procedures for fortifying the security of 5G networks, culminating in a comprehensive assessment of risk across various member states, elucidating the vulnerabilities within their infrastructure.

Building upon these reports, in 2020, the EU unveiled the "Toolbox for 5G security", acknowledging the indispensable nature of 5G network security in safeguarding economies and societies, as well as preserving the Union's technological sovereignty (European Digital Decade 2020-2030). This framework seeks to establish a cohesive European approach to 5G security, but also to export it to other foreign countries. Member states are tasked with enhancing controls for telecommunications company security requirements, conducting thorough analyses of supplier risks, and formulating reliable provisioning strategies. The Commission assumes the role of facilitating coordinated national action, and advocating for 5G technology supply chains that mitigate dependencies. Although Huawei and China are not mentioned in the document, these directives were adopted by the EU to mitigate vulnerabilities arising from the fact that in many European states the main supplier of 5G network equipment was Huawei, while European companies failed to be competitive.


In conclusion, a comparison between the approaches of the EU and the United States reveals a concerted effort by the EU to foster diversification in the supply of equipment for 5G networks, thereby reducing reliance on the Chinese company Huawei, rather than an outright ban. Despite Huawei's endeavors to demonstrate its reliability through transparency, such as opening control centers in Europe, these measures have proven insufficient, as the issue has transcended technical concerns to become inherently political. The EU has effectively securitized the 5G and Huawei issue, instituting common regulations for member states. Nevertheless, several European states have yet to fully implement these directives, with only 10 European states having banned or restricted high-risk telecommunication providers from their 5G network infrastructures.

However, the EU's capacity to establish legal institutions and standards targeting major multinational corporations from foreign nations is noteworthy. This is exemplified by the EU's strategy of externalizing regulations through standard-setting mechanisms and requiring accomplishment with this standard to gain access to the European market (the "Brussels effects”). Moreover, by promulgating common regulations through a consolidated process, the EU underscores European unity and credibility, thereby accruing political capital on the international stage. Indeed, the EU's demonstration of intent to restrict Huawei's access to the European domestic market has catalyzed committing by Intel, an American company to a significant investment in Europe.

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