From its role as the birthplace of the United Nations, the city of San Francisco has always had its own distinctive place in the world of diplomacy. In recent years, however, San Francisco has become the birthplace of something else – a distinctive form of tech diplomacy that could only happen within striking distance of Silicon Valley.
In September, the European Commission is joining the fray with its own San Francisco office. Gerard de Graaf, who spearheaded digital regulation at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, is set to lead the new outpost, which will operate under the purview of the Washington EU Delegation office and coordinate with Brussels.
While the exact date, location, and size of the new EU office is yet to be determined, the remit is clear.
“We are essentially launching the EU’s digital diplomacy as yet another foreign policy tool to support our geopolitical role and our ambitions in the global technical power game.” Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Commission told Parliament Magazine of the new office. “Because digital issues are no longer just a matter of engineers, no longer technical matters. They are the battleground of technology, values and narratives.”
Digital issues are no longer just a matter of engineers, no longer technical matters. They are the battleground of technology, values and narratives.
“San Francisco was chosen because it is a global centre for digital technology and innovation. It also responds to requests from EU Member States to increase the EU presence on the US west coast,” Stano added.
The opening of the office follows a Parliamentary diplomatic mission to Silicon Valley in late May ahead of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA) being passed by the European Parliament; both acts are expected to have significant impact on the tech industry.
These laws represent the latest EU efforts to regulate the digital sphere and curb the power of US tech giants. The “right to be forgotten” legal principle, established in 2014 by a ruling from the European Court of Justice, marked an era of lawsuits and contention between Silicon Valley and Europe. In the years since, the European Commission has levied billions of dollars in fines against Google, Facebook, Amazon, Qualcomm, Apple and other leading technology companies for offenses ranging from unpaid taxes to market monopolization. The General Data Protection Regulation, which established strict rules for how companies handle personal data, came into effect in May 2018.
Jeroen Dewulf, director of the Institute of European Studies at University of California, Berkeley, has watched the evolution of the relationship between Europe and Silicon Valley over the past decade.
“In the early years, people would be fascinated with the expansion of technology in Silicon Valley, with the possibilities, and whether we could potentially build something similar in Europe,” Dewulf told Parliament Magazine. “What I have seen over the years is that perspective has become more critical – concerns have grown about the darker sides of big tech, concerns about abuse of power, lack of transparency.”
The opening of the EU office signals, to some, a change in approach, with a focus on greater cooperation and diplomacy (particularly ahead of the inevitable legal backlash against the DMA). Yet the Union is arguably behind the curve.
Several European countries have already established a tech diplomacy presence in the Bay Area. SwissNex on Pier 17 of the Embarcadero is an event space, consulate, start-up incubator and tourism office in one revamped hangar. Denmark’s tech ambassador – an official title – has an office located in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley (the country famously appointed the first ambassador to the tech industry in 2017, although he later left to work at Microsoft). Open Austria, the official Austrian presence in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, appointed its first Austrian tech ambassador in 2020.
These missions, however, have often focused on trade, supporting diaspora in tech and entrepreneurship, and other collaborations. For instance, the Holland in the Valley initiative, a program established by the Netherlands Consulate in San Francisco, brings together government, the private sector and academia “to boost results in entrepreneurship, innovation, and applied science.”
The EU’s new office signals a broader approach, one that will be more policy and regulation focused. With the nomination of Nathaniel Fick to lead the State Department’s new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, the US is attempting to make strides in bridging the gap of tech regulation; however, for the foreseeable future, the EU will continue to lead.
Paul Adamson, OBE, Chairman of Forum Europe, which organises policy conferences and has received funding to promote the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), told Parliament Magazine, “As a public relations strategy, the EU has to better explain what they’re doing. This opening up [of the office] is really intriguing. It suggests to me that they’re trying to do some proselytising, make the case about what they’re doing on the home turf of the tech sector, rather than being accused by the tech sector that, ‘You’re so remote. You’re in Brussels. What do you know about what we’re doing here?’”
It suggests to me that they’re trying to do some proselytising, make the case about what they’re doing on the home turf of the tech sector
“Gerard is a very affable guy, as well as being very knowledgeable,” Adamson said. “He’s a very relaxed kind of guy, and quite diplomatic. I think he’s a very good choice.”
Dewulf, the director of the Institute of European Studies, expects de Graaf will find a welcome reception when he arrives.
“Within California in general, in particular the Bay Area, there is a tremendous amount of goodwill when it comes to the EU and its policies and its vision for the world. I always regretted that Europe was not taking advantage of that, enough. Of course, we have the EU office in Washington, DC, but I always felt that was maybe too far from what was going on here on the west coast,” Dewulf told Parliament Magazine. “Sometimes I have the impression that the EU is much more popular here in California than it is in Europe, and its attempts to tackle certain challenges with a mindset and a perspective that aligns quite well with the general mindset of people here in California.”
“That’s why, for me, I’m so excited that we have the news that an EU office is finally coming to San Francisco, to the west coast,” he said.