Car Wars: The Future of Europe’s Car Industry

The automotive industry is experiencing the biggest disruption in its history. The car will undergo more changes in the next 10 years than it has over the last 10 decades put together. Several trends are pushing forward this massive transformation, accompanied by the emergence of new companies and competitors. Europe’s automotive industry urgently needs to address these challenges if it wants to stay successful.

This article was first published with the Green European Journal.

Europe is the cradle of the car industry. The first automobile, invented in Europe around 130 years ago, was a niche product. Few understood its broader implications. As Germany’s last Kaiser Wilhelm II infamously quipped, “The automobile is only a temporary phenomenon. I believe in the horse”.

Since then, Europe has put the world on wheels. Its cars and automotive technologies are sold and used all over the globe. Europe’s automotive industry has grown and flourished, becoming an essential part of the continent’s industrial fabric, providing millions of jobs, contributing substantially to GDP, creating value and moving people and goods. Overall, it’s an economic success story.

But as founder of tech giant Intel Andy Grove noted, success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.

And failure is looming. Emissions-cheating scandals have seriously damaged the industry’s reputation and finances. What’s more, they have highlighted a smug disregard when it comes to eco-innovation. Cheating rather than beating environmental standards is not a sustainable strategy. This lack of innovation and future-oriented approach is endangering Europe’s car industry.

A perfect storm is brewing in the automotive world. The car is practically being reinvented. And Europe’s automotive industry is failing to keep pace.

The car of the future is sustainable, smart and shared, and each of these characteristics brings both new challenges and new challengers.

The first is climate change. The automotive sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The transport sector is responsible for roughly 22 per cent of overall emissions in the European Union. And while the EU was able to cut its emissions by 23 per cent since 1990, the emissions in the transport sector actually grew by 20 per cent during this timeframe. If the EU wants to achieve its climate targets, every sector must play its role, including the car industry. This is a matter of climate stability, but it is also an economic matter.

Sustainability is becoming a market factor. An increasing number of countries are introducing new regulations and frameworks limiting fossil fuel powered combustion engines and promoting electric cars. France and the UK have put forward a ban on combustion engines by 2040, Norway has plans to have all new cars be zero-emission by 2025, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all have set official targets for electric car sales and even the world’s largest car market, China, has put in place quotas for electric vehicles and is considering a similar end date to France and the UK. In addition a number of cities such as Paris and Copenhagen are planning to ban diesel cars from entering the city centre.

But the market is irreversibly changing in favour of more environmentally friendly cars. If Europe’s automotive industry doesn’t adapt to these changes quickly enough, it will lose out. Those who come too late will be punished by the market. This particular trend towards greater sustainability is also accompanied by advances in battery storage technology. The mileage of electric cars is increasing and the costs are coming down. Questions around the sustainability of their supply chains notwithstanding, electric cars are in the midst of a break-out moment.

The second trend is autonomous driving. Artificial intelligence is giving the car a brain. The car of the future is not only sustainable, it’s also smart. Fitted with sensors, cameras and high-tech electronics, the car is becoming a computer on wheels. Rather than relying on a human driver, cars will drive themselves, reducing traffic deaths, avoiding congestion and freeing up their passengers’ time for other things. In the future, prospective car buyers might be more interested in on-board entertainment systems and other similar features than any other aspect.

And last but not least, the car of the future is becoming connected and shared. Rather than being an isolated, personal transport solution, it is becoming part of a mixed mobility network together with public transport and bicycles. New mobility platforms and business models are emerging, with numerous ride-hailing and car-sharing apps conquering the world of mobility. Instead of selling cars, these new players are selling kilometres. This, too, could be a great challenge to traditional car manufacturers, with the competition only one smartphone-click away.

Cultural and demographic changes are also fuelling this trend. Young people and urban dwellers no longer have a strong desire to own a car, and worry about the availability of parking spaces, insurance, and other inconveniences associated with car ownership. They want instant, on-demand access to mobility solutions. Car-sharing and ride-hailing could therefore also displace car ownership in certain areas, particularly in big cities. It is also a more efficient mobility system, given that the average car is parked 95 per cent of the time and therefore is only in use for the remaining 5 per cent.

In the context of these three transformative developments, international competition in the automotive world is heating up, challenging Europe’s traditionally strong position. Many new competitors have emerged. US-based Tesla, for one, has become a leader in the luxury electric vehicle market, and is now entering the mass market for electric vehicles with the new, more affordable Model 3. Simultaneously, a whole new type of competitor is joining the fray. Traditional car companies may find themselves increasingly side-lined in a ‘parasitic’ relationship with tech titans such as Google, Apple and Baidu: the former provide the basic car structures, while the latter kit them out with the latest design, technology (such as automated driving, voice-assistants like Siri, cloud-based solutions, cyber-protection, etc.) and infotainment systems, therefore getting a greater share of the value-added. Besides the data protection issues that arise when data monopolists enter the car industry, a crucial question actually is whether car companies can manage to diversify their offer into the technology sector rather than vice versa. And last but not least, a whole range of start-ups and service providers with new business models, such as Uber, Lyft and Didi Chuxing, have penetrated the automotive world. These forces could spell veritable ‘carmaggedon’ for some of Europe’s car manufacturers.

Europe is finding itself in a two-front war. In the West, it is facing companies such as Tesla, Google and Uber, which together represent the three trends that are defining the car of the future. Tesla is electrifying the car fleet, Google is working on autonomous cars and Uber, Lyft and others are providing new mobility concepts.

The situation in the East is no different. Chinese tech titans such as Baidu and Alibaba are developing driverless cars. Ride-hailing players such as Didi Chuxing — China’s Uber — are expanding abroad. And China is a market and industry leader in electric mobility. It has witnessed a rapid increase in electric vehicle production capacity, as well as sales. According to McKinsey research, Chinese manufacturers produced 43 per cent of the 873 000 electric vehicles built worldwide in 2016, and the country is home to the largest fleet of electric vehicles. In addition, China is a booming place for start-ups in the automotive sector.

Furthermore, China, South Korea and Japan are leaders in battery technologies and dominate the battery market. China in particular is building up its battery production capacity in order to gain a strategic stranglehold over this key sector. Not having a single battery production plant itself, Europe might come to regret relying on countries such as China for electric car batteries, given that China will increasingly require those batteries for its own electric car production.

It is an open secret that Europe has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to these technological developments. Electric cars have been belittled for too long, and by too many of Europe’s major car companies. According to the European Commission, the Chinese market already features 400 different types of electric vehicles, compared to Europe’s six. There’s a veritable race for low-emissions vehicles and Europe is being forced to play catch-up.

Europe’s policymakers have long been too lax towards the automotive industry. EU emissions targets have been watered down, and regulators have kept regulatory loopholes open and their eyes closed when it comes to emissions cheating, while providing subsidies to the car industry. Thinking that this would protect the car industry and strengthen it against the global competition, in fact the opposite has been the case. Keeping the status quo and lowering ambitions in the midst of a great transformation is never a successful strategy. It is reminiscent of the iPhone moment when Apple’s new smartphone quickly destroyed Nokia’s leadership of the mobile phone market.

Europe’s car companies have incredible know-how, expertise, R&D, and formidable skilled workers. But they need to change gear. And governments need to push them too. The European Commission, for instance, is now energetically working towards a European battery alliance with the aim of building a European battery supply chain for electric vehicles. It should be commended for that. However, more scepticism is warranted when it comes to its newly proposed CO2-emission targets for cars. Under the Commission proposal, which is still to be negotiated with the European Council and European Parliament, new cars would have to reduce their CO2 emissions by 15 per cent on average by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2021). These reduction targets are flanked by a crediting system for zero- (electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles) and low-emissions vehicles (less than 50g CO2 per km, mostly plug-in hybrids). Manufacturers that have a share of zero- and low-emission vehicles that is higher than 15 per cent in 2025 and 30 per cent in 2030 will be rewarded with a less strict CO2 target.

While the car industry has complained that the targets are overly ambitious, a variety of NGOs have criticised them for not being ambitious enough.

The crediting system, which would allow companies to underperform the emissions target depending on the number of their zero-emissions cars, also seems somewhat misplaced. Such a system should act as an incentive for companies to be even more ambitious. But a whole range of European car manufacturers have already announced that they will boost the sale of electric cars. Volvo will electrify its entire vehicle line by 2019, Aston Martin will go completely hybrid by 2025, and BMW too has said that it aims to have 25 per cent EV sales by 2025.

What was supposed to be a reward for ambition is looking more like an emissions target loophole. Where’s the drive in this crediting system? Given these circumstances, and the fact that a number of EU Member States has already announced an end date for fossil fuel-powered cars (France, Netherlands), it is possible that some Member States might want to move ahead of the pack and put forward more ambitious national plans, knowing that ambition is needed to drive this great transformation in the automotive world.

Greens have a lot to gain from the fundamental trends reshaping the car industry. They are recognised as being one of the only political parties with strong credibility on mobility and transport issues. And unlike other political parties, the Greens have not been tainted by the emissions-cheating scandal.

The Greens could make use of this situation to strengthen their position as a credible, respected actor on transport and mobility issues. This does not mean finger wagging in the direction of the car industry, but rather an earnest, pragmatic dialogue. Unlike the socialists and the conservatives, with their strong focuses on jobs and competitiveness respectively, the Greens are in a good position to take a comprehensive view of the issues facing the car industry and their likely impacts, and to engage with the different stakeholders in this industry. The fact that the Greens hold the chair of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee is also helpful in this context.

There has traditionally been some bad blood between the car industry and the Greens. There is, however, little point in continually looking back into the rear-view mirror. Now is the time to discuss the future, and to make the European car industry fit for it. Indeed, this is the approach taken by Germany’s only Green Minister-President — in the state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Daimler, Porsche and Audi — who has launched a strategic dialogue with the automobile industry to discuss the multitude of challenges it faces, and to come up with proposals on how Baden-Württemberg can retain its leadership position in the sector. Participants include car manufacturers and original-equipment manufacturers, energy companies, public transport entities, city representatives and policymakers, academics, trade unions and environmental NGOs.

Europe was the birthplace of the car, but the car isn’t what it used to be. It is being reinvented, and the birth pangs are shaking the European car industry to the core. Greens can play an important role in ensuring the ongoing success of the European car industry by mixing ambition with pragmatism, and idealism with governing experience. They are in the perfect position to integrate emerging models and best practices, to make new alliances, and to strike the right balance to make the car industry more sustainable and simultaneously more competitive for the future.

Trumping Trump: A Gulliver Strategy

Trump is a commercial tycoon turned political typhoon. He’s taken a sledgehammer to the political establishment, steamrolling through the Republican primary and then snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the US presidential election. Since then, there’s been no break from this dizzying roller-coaster ride. Core foundations and political tenets have been shaken. The transatlantic alliance, NATO’s collective defense, free trade, a free press, rule of law, all have been challenged. It’s been bunker, not beacon America.

Yet, looking beyond the fog of Trump’s tweets, it’s becoming clear that, in spite of Republican control of both houses, his Presidency isn’t going to be all smooth sailing. What seems to be effective in countering Trump is a “Gulliver strategy” – a convergence of many different smaller actors to contain him, as in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. In this classic, the protagonist Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and awakes to find himself pinned down by a multitude of tiny people, inhabitants of the island country of Lilliput.

What we are seeing is a multitude of smaller actors outside of Washington D.C. restraining Trump. Lawyers, judges, attorneys and citizens all rallied against Trump’s immigration order back in January. At least 44 US states are so far resisting the voter data request from the Trump Commission. And an army of mayors are countering Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

The last in particular is an example of how he can be side-lined. Trump may proclaim that he’s withdrawing the US from the Paris deal, but US climate ambition can continue without him. Just recently, 1.400 US mayors, Republicans and Democrats, pledged to support cities’ adoption of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2035. Governors and US states have also pushed ahead. And they can make a huge impact. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, these states have enough power to reduce their own emissions to such an extent that the US could still meet the CO2 reduction target committed to under the Paris Agreement.

These actors need strengthening! That means it’s time to dust-off the old city partnerships, build bridges between European regions and American states, and bring different players together. For example, the German region of Baden-Wuerttemberg has together with California launched the Under2MoU climate initiative in 2015. It includes a total of 176 jurisdictions representing 1.2 billion people and Trump’s Paris withdrawal is the perfect opportunity to now bring more US states and cities to join this initiative.

There’s been too much hoping that individuals in the administration like McMaster, Tillerson, Kushner or House and Senate Republicans might have a stabilising, tempering influence on Trump. They don’t. Trump is a one-way train. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German anti-Nazi dissident and pastor, once said “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”.

House and Senate Republicans are likely to discontinue their support of Trump once their voter base starts to shrink. But in the meantime, the checks and balances on Trump’s Presidency are the many local and regional actors, the brave men and women doing their jobs working in the media, judiciary, law enforcement, and so many other places.

Russia and Germany’s SPD: Energy ties that bind

Respect! This week the US Senate voted to fortify US sanctions against Russia. The new amendments on the Iran sanctions bill would require the President to seek congressional approval before lifting any of the Russia sanctions. Trump’s elbow room on Russia is closing. This is a big deal. Not only because it was a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats, but also because Republicans went against the wishes of the US administration.

Additionally, the Senate went even further, expanding the sanction measures against those supplying arms to Syria and those conducting cyberattacks. Most prominently for Europe, the US Senate launched a broadside against Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project that would bypass Ukraine as a transit country and expand Russian gas supplies directly to Germany.  The Senate clearly stated its opposition to the gas line “given its detrimental impacts on the European Union’s energy security” and put in a provision that would allow the administration to sanction EU companies involved in any Russian export pipeline (read: Nord Stream 2).

This is a milestone development. It strengthens US resolve on the Russia sanctions and should somewhat ease European worries about Trump going soft on Russia. And it puts further pressure on Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that the majority of EU Member States and the European Commission oppose for obvious geopolitical reasons.

Yet, the tone from Berlin is hysterical. Foreign Minister Gabriel has sharply criticised the proposal. Chancellor Merkel is backing Gabriel on this, albeit via a statement from her press spokesperson. And German Economy Minister Zypries has even speculatively floated the idea of countermeasures against the US in this regard. They consider the US Senate act an offense to the German energy companies in bed with Gazprom and claim the US is shamelessly promoting its own energy interests given its potential for shale gas exports to Europe

What nonsense!

The arguments don’t stand up to any scrutiny. First, US gas export infrastructure ain’t sufficient to make any relevant dent in the EU’s gas imports from Russia any time soon. And second, Asian markets would economically be more profitable for US gas exporters. Europe’s energy security isn’t strengthened by increasing dependence on Russia via yet another pipeline.

What’s actually at play is a kind of Schroederisation of the election campaign.

Gerhard Schroeder, the Socialist former Chancellor of Germany, successfully used anti-American rhetoric in his opposition to the Iraq War to win re-election in 2002.

Having crashed down in the opinion polls, the SPD is desperately clutching at straws, hoping that strong rhetoric against the US will bring them back some dynamic. Chancellor Merkel is aware of that threat and tried to pre-empt it with her speech in Trudering, where she highlighted that Europe can no longer rely on the US. But she too is aware of the pitfalls of going overboard. Hence, why her statement came from the press spokesperson.

The Socialist criticism of the US Senate is comical. It puts the SPD in the same camp as Trump, since his administration had been against these Senate amendments as well. So the SPD is actually supporting Trump now on Russia. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

In a declaration against the US Senate amendments, German Foreign Minister Gabriel and the Austrian Chancellor Kern state that “we decide upon who delivers us energy according to the rules of openness and market competition”, and that geopolitical interests shouldn’t interfere with economic interests. If that’s the case then what’s up with the EU sanctions regime? Aren’t geopolitical interests at play here that interfere with economic interests? Should the sanctions now also be sacrificed on the altar of economic interests?

This whole episode clearly shows again the deep ties that bind the German Socialists to the Russian regime and its energy exports. Gerhard Schroeder, now on the payroll of Gazprom as one of its chief lobbyists, is obviously doing a good job inside his party.

The SPD is known to pursue a traditional Russia policy of Wandel durch Annäherung (‘change through rapprochement’), stating that Russia can be changed through close ties. The problem is that it’s not Russia that’s changing, it’s the SPD akin to Nietzsche who said “when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you”.

Putin and his regime are masters at network diplomacy, penetrating deep into all kinds of social, economic and political structures. The intermingling of economic, political and private ties, as so highlighted by Gerhard Schroeder is dangerous. It pits personal against national/European interests. Even the Notorious B.I.G. understood this point, when he said in his 10 rap commandments that rule 7 is crucial but “so underrated: keep your family and business completely separated”.

EU Member States opposing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline need to come out swinging in favour of the US Senate, lobby the US Congress and administration in favour of the legislation, and criticise Germany for its position. Pressure on Germany needs to increase in order to deep-six the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The Internet of Wild Things: Why EU Cybersecurity makes me wannacry

More than 200.000 computers infected, more than 150 countries affected, a total cost of up to 4 billion USD, and countless hospitals, factories, and services shutdown – that was the result of the worldwide cyberattack known as WannaCry. Putting its direct impact aside, however, the Wannacry attack painfully laid bare the cyber vulnerabilities of our age.

Cyberattacks are by far no longer a niche issue or futuristic material for blockbuster movies like Die Hard 4.0. They’re a daily reality. Last year in Europe, almost 70% of large businesses and half of all small businesses are estimated to have been victims to a cyberattack. And that’s no great surprise. The majority of companies doesn’t even have formal cyber security policies in place. Most worryingly perhaps is that the majority of cyber intrusions focus on a crucial people-oriented sector: healthcare. A recent report into cyber security trends highlighted that almost 20% of all attacks target that particular industry. The WannaCry attack, for example, affected many National Health Service hospitals in England and Scotland. All kinds of devices had been infected, ranging from computers and blood-storage refrigerators to MRI scanners.

The alarm bells have been ringing for some time now and WannaCry was a wake-up call that due to its global reach, finally jolted some into action. Germany, for example, has now stated its intention to update its cybersecurity legislation to include the health care and financial sectors in its list of critical industries that require minimum cybersecurity standards.

The European Union has also been working on its cybersecurity legislation, having put into place its NIS Directive (Directive on security of network and information systems), which must be implemented by the EU Member States by May 2018. This Directive obliges critical institutions and infrastructures to have basic minimum cybersecurity standards.

However, in this fast-evolving brave new digital world, catching-up just ain’t good enough. The pace and extent of digitalisation is so fast and wide that legislation needs to adapt accordingly. That means not just reacting but pro-actively considering and putting into place cybersecurity safeguards for emerging fields.

Digitalisation is a base innovation, similar to the invention of electricity. It is spreading like wildfire into every sector, service and product. Everything is becoming connected. The Internet of Things is a prime example where regular products from coffee machines to baby dolls are being digitised. But our cybersecurity legislation is not taking it into account. These devices don’t need to have any basic cybersecurity standards. As such, the Internet of Things can through cyber-manipulation actually turn into an Internet of Wild Things.

Just last year, a massive cyberattack took control over thousands of internet-connected devices – ranging from cameras, kettles, thermostats and TVs – to then use this “zombie army” of things to take down sites such as Twitter, Spotify and Paypal.

These internet-connected products are often sold as “smart devices”. They’re not. Without basic cybersecurity standards, they’re stupid devices. They open a cyber door into our digital and physical lives. They can be the entry point, allowing someone to cross-over into other digital areas such as your credit card details. They can create vulnerability. As has also been shown in automated cars that have been hacked into and hijacked so to speak.

There’s a large vacuum in this field that needs to be filled. And the longer it takes to fill it, the more vulnerable digital society will become. Because any new legislation calling for basic IT standards on connected devices would arguably only count for new devices sold in the market. But what about all those old smart devices that are already in circulation?

Secondly, there’s another fundamental question to be asked about connected devices. Let’s be realistic: a one-off cybersecurity standard won’t do. Cybersecurity is a non-stop game where software needs to be continually updated and expanded. That was also one of the reasons why so many computers had been infected by WannaCry – they were running out-of-date versions of Windows. How will such a process for updating connected devices be put into place? Is it realistic and would companies want to take on that responsibility? And what will its impact be? Izabella Kaminska, recently asked in an op-ed in the Financial Times what would happen in the case of self-driving cars, if one encounters “the spinning wheel of death (ie. a software update) just when they need to rush to hospital?” Digital systems can have physical effects.

The European Parliament in a recently adopted Report on Digitising European Industry has brought attention to this issue of connectivity. The report raises the issue that “producers are responsible for ensuring safety and cybersecurity standards as core design parameters” and that “cyber security requirements for the Internet of Things…would strengthen European cyber-resilience”. Hear Hear! The European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) has also been promoting this issue, highlighting its damage potential.

Basic IT security parameters need to be put into place to ensure the Internet of Things doesn’t turn into the Internet of Wild Things. European policymakers need to move this issue forward in spite of industry moaning. As a first step, they could adapt public procurement rules in such a way that any connected device would be required to have basic cybersecurity standards.

Debating Ethics in the Digital Disruption

We are in the midst of perhaps the largest societal disruption in history. Digitalisation is changing the way we work, consume, communicate, think, live. And this in an incredibly short timeframe. The industrial revolution in the 18th Century took about 80 years. It resulted in mass urbanisation and mass technological, economic, societal, social, environmental, geostrategic and political change.

Digitalisation goes beyond this in many ways. Its change is not only faster, it accelerates life itself. It touches upon every sector and every facet of our lives. It’s revolutionising production, information, mobility, and so on. Autonomous cars, robots, artificial intelligence, automation, social media, are all transformative. They will define us; they will define society. This is the dream of the Silicon Valley pioneers. Harnessing the transformative powers of digitalisation to change society for the better.

This blue-eyed idealism, however, has some dark downsides. We’re aware of the information cocoon, the echo chambers, that our social media builds, which leads to greater social polarisation and extremism. We know that digitalisation impacts attention, memory, empathy and attitude. We know that it will impact the job market. But, we don’t know how it will do so, at what speed and depth, and what its meta-impact will be on our society at large.

Different doomsday scenarios are emerging. In a world of robots and artificial intelligence (AI), Israeli Historian Yuval Noah Harari is already talking of an upcoming “useless class”. A class of humans that will be living in a post-work world with no economic purpose. Principal researcher at Microsoft Research, Kate Crawford, has warned that in a world of rising nationalism AI could be a “fascists dream”, allowing authoritarian regimes an unprecedented amount of command and control. And Sir Mark Walport, UK chief scientific advisor, too has cautioned against the uncontrolled use of AI in areas such as medicine and the law, because AI can’t be neutral. AI is based on humans and human data. That means AI can take on the very inherent biases that we have, magnify them, and then act on them.

All kinds of ethical questions are emerging in this digital disruption. Who will be liable in a crash by an autonomous car or in a surgery gone wrong by a robot? What should be the algorithms used in autonomous cars – drive over and kill the pedestrian if it saves your life in a traffic situation, or crash and kill yourself, saving the pedestrian? What degree of regulation does social media require to combat fake news and hate speech, without impacting freedom of speech? Should robots be banned from certain tasks? Should there be regulation stating that final decisions must still be made by a human rather than by artificial intelligence? Akin to the military rule that a “kill decision” always has to be made by a human. How do we distribute wealth created by robots? And what happens to the workers displaced by robots?

The problem is, as Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society, that “the growing intelligence of mankind seems not to be growing rapidly enough to achieve mastery over the social problems, which the advances of technology create”. It is high time for a public debate on ethics and digital technology. Leading AI companies are already moving ahead. Facebook, Amazon, Google DeepMind, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft, this unholy alliance of competitors, has already joined hands in a Partnership on AI designed to initiate more public discussion on artificial intelligence. Why would that be? Because it’s about their business. Loss of public trust in these new technologies could significantly affect their business, burning the billions of dollars in research budgets put into AI.

The public discussion should not be for business to shape. Public authorities have leadership responsibility to put this on the political agenda, start this discussion and engage citizens in it. Some progress is taking place. The UK has established a Data Ethics Group at the Alan Turing Institute and the European Commission can also particularly be praised. Together with media partners from 19 EU countries (such as El Pais, The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Gazeta Wyborcza, etc.) it has launched a massive set of internet consultations, engaging citizens in surveys on the impact of the digital world on jobs, privacy, health, democracy, security, and so on.

We need an ethical discussion on digital technologies to ensure that the safeguards we have in place for the analogue world are also in the digital world. Digitalisation is shaping and defining us. But we need to be the ones that shape and define it. So that it may give us its greatest advantage and the least disadvantage.

Dutch courage? Takeaways from the election

Relief! The Dutch voted against xenophobe populism. A clear victory against extremism, Francois Hollande called it. The nationalist Geert Wilders didn’t win. That’s what’s making the rounds. The fact that Wilders didn’t become the strongest party in town is significant. But let’s not drink too much of that Kool-Aid.

The closed-society populists didn’t per se lose. Wilders defined this election. He was front and centre of it. Issues of immigration, globalisation and Europe dominated the campaign discourse. And other parties rushed to join in, moving more to the right. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s open letter, where he told immigrants to “doe normaal” (act normal) or go away, went in that direction.

Wilders won seats, the government parties lost seats. Labour tanked in this grand coalition. It lost around three-quarters of its seats, while the liberals lost eight. Now, Wilders PVV is the second largest party. It will be the parliament’s main opposition.

So this election didn’t stop the populists in their tracks. It slowed them down. It bought time. Time that will have to be used to win back the disenfranchised, dissatisfied and disillusioned. And this in a time where the political landscape is more fragmented than ever. Thirteen parties are entering the parliament. The new government is likely to be a coalition of four to six different parties. Agreeing on and sticking with an agenda for change will be difficult. But it’s imperative.

The election showed that politics is becoming political again. The field is wide open. Yes, it always was a bit more so in the Netherlands with its culture of multi-party government. But all over Europe we are witness to this phenomenon. Grand coalitions and the constant battle for the middle ground – with centre-right parties flirting left and centre-left parties flirting right – have drained politics. If everyone’s huddled in the centre, the extremist fringe looks like the only alternative.

Second, the election proved again that national elections are becoming more European. This election was a European election. All of Europe watched it, all of Europe discussed it, and Europe was part of the election debate. It also saw a record turnout of Dutch voters abroad. Twice as many Dutch from abroad voted in this election compared to 2012.

More importantly, however, it showed again that you can mobilise and motivate voters with a clear open-society, pro-European, constructive patriotic orientation. This pattern is hardening. Van der Bellen did it. Jesse Klaver just did it (almost quadrupling the Greens’ seats in the Dutch election). Macron is doing it. During the week of the Dutch election he went to Berlin with a pro-European message. And the Social Democrats in Germany are trying to do it. The Pulse of Europe citizens’ initiative demonstrates that people care about Europe and are willing to stand up for Europe. EU flags aren’t just swung in Ukraine. They are now swung every Sunday at 2pm in countless European cities, where citizens make their voice heard for a strong European Union.

This is part of the recipe on how to win elections currently – bringing together an open, tolerant, empathetic, pro-European vision with a grounded, civic, positive pride in your own country’s culture and way of life. It’s bringing together the outside and inside and forming it into an “us, together”. It’s a positive vision against the negative vision of the populists. And in doing so, it follows the advice of the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, namesake of the European student exchange programme: “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”


The cracks in society: Escaping the echo chamber is not enough

This year has been a watershed for progressive forces. The West is in the grip of a populist insurgency. Brexit and Trump are a result of this tide.

In search for explanations, one particular buzzword is defining the discourse: “echo chamber”. Many pundits have written insightfully on how progressives are stuck within their own filter bubble and have forgotten how to engage with those who think differently. They are right. But this doesn’t seem to go far enough. Perhaps, it’s too shallow an analysis. It’s not just about the (social media) echo chamber that simply reinforces your own worldview; it’s about the fact that societies have become more self-centred. Digitalisation has led to greater individualisation.

Yes, the digital environment empowers but it also makes selfish. With Fitbits and smartphones we continuously self-track our own activities and performance, in an effort to self-optimise. Facebook and Twitter echo our own views. It’s about ourselves. It’s an ethics of vanity that Edmund Burke warned against. The digital world reaffirms existence. I browse, therefore I am. Being online is who we are. Studies show that, on average, we are on our phones 221 times a day. Five and a half hours are each day supposedly spent on digital media. That number is even higher for younger generations. It diminishes the scope for intimate interaction. But it’s relationships and experiences that change people and make them grow. We cannot build our own individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.

The digital environment also breeds immediate desires, envy and painfully illustrates inequality. Algorithms show desirable products. Smartphones show how the most luxurious of society live. It’s now possible to constantly see a greener grass on the other side. Expectations are rising faster than before. And as digital technologies have grown so has participation in mediating institutions, such as trade unions, faith-based communities and civic organisations, fallen.

Alongside these trends there’s also greater isolation. Digitalisation and automation are changing the nature of the workforce in ways we do not yet comprehend, with people falling out of the workforce or falling into the digital self-employed. There are also too many losers of globalisation and people that feel left behind culturally. They feel no longer useful or part of something bigger. It’s like they’re falling out of society.

It is this mix of individualisation and isolation that weakens the social bonds of community and democracy. The World Values Survey has shown that there is a deconsolidation of democracy as particularly younger generations, drawn to digital technologies, are less attached to democratic values. The percentage of people who say it is essential to live in a democracy has plummeted. Less than 30% of Americans, Dutch and British citizens born in the 1980s believe so. Only 36% of millennials in Europe think that a military takeover against an incompetent government would be illegitimate.

Democracy is a system of compromise. But in this digital age, no one wants to compromise anymore. Over the past months and weeks I have met more and more people who are tired of compromise. They say they voted in an election and instead of getting what they wanted, they got a compromise. But democracy isn’t binary. It’s a long, messy, complicated, unsatisfactory compromising process. Populism, however, is the desire for fast, unrealistic solutions to complex problems.

The European Union is a prime example. Compromise has gotten ever more difficult to achieve between the EU Member States. But the EU is built on compromise. Compromising requires leadership. It usually requires the strong to give in and make that extra effort for the greater good. But Europe’s strongest Member State, Germany, has been reluctant to depart from its austerity drive, for example. Similarly with the United States. The US has been providing leadership and been an anchor for a rules-based world order. But with Donald Trump, the United States has voted to give up that role. People felt their country has done too much, given the world too much and that it was time to make America great again. Countless citizens feel that way about their country. Everybody wants to “Make X great again”, as Mark Lilla wrote in the New York Times.

We are moving from the Art of the Compromise to the Art of the Deal. Compromising is self-less. You give up something to find something greater together. Dealmaking is selfish. You expect something for giving something. No doubt, both are necessary in the tough world of international relations. And the EU, too, must engage in dealmaking. But dealmaking cannot stand alone in the world either.

There needs to be a better balance again between compromising and dealmaking, between change and security, between individualisation and community. Individualisation, too, can be a force for good. For example, when it unleashes the creative entrepreneurial spirit and allows people the freedom to fulfill themselves. But individualisation is getting more extreme. Simultaneously ,there is indeed a nascent desire for more community and coming together. The Munich “Refugee Welcome” event was one moment where that desire was awakened. Yet, bonds of society are currently loosening and societal rifts need healing.

That means it’s not enough to escape the echo chamber. One has to actively engage with opposing views and seek how these could be reconciled with one’s own and where common ground could lie. This is the tough question; it is a thin line that separates compromising from collaborating. How far can one go in finding common ground? Principled engagement should be the guide. Engaging and seeking compromise, finding common ground that can advance your principles. It’s the wisdom of the hitchhiker. If the first car that offers you a ride is only going halfway to your destination, take it.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, warned against the loss of social wisdom, loss of community, loss of identity, all of which would bring social disorder. He highlighted that politics is not just about the interests of individuals; it’s about preserving a community, a social order. According to Jesse Norman, Burke epitomised the “balance between ego and circumstance, between ambition and constraint, between individuality and society”. Maybe it’s time again for more Burke and less Zuckerberg.