The European Commission will this week call for the bloc’s 28 countries to provide data to help map and then close possible vulnerabilities if they choose Huawei or other Chinese suppliers to build critical communications systems, diplomats say.
The move is in line with the national strategies of many EU member states but at odds with pressure from Washington to shut out Chinese companies from sensitive areas of electronic infrastructure. US officials have warned that a European embrace of Huawei could undermine transatlantic military and intelligence co-operation.
“Huawei technology is good and it’s cheap — the only problem is it’s Chinese,” said one EU diplomat of the European view. “The approach will be, let’s see how we can somehow manage the security risks. This is clearly the direction we are going in.”
The commission will call for member states to quickly carry out assessments on which parts of its 5G networks are most at risk and how the problems might be mitigated, diplomats said. The results would then be pooled and used to develop recommendations for EU-wide minimum standards, to be made available as auctions for 5G spectrum are rolled out.
The commission work is part of a push for a more coherent EU response to the growing strategic challenges presented by China, while acknowledging that national security remains the domain of member states. A document on China published earlier this month by the commission and the EU’s diplomatic service urged a “common EU approach” to 5G security risks, including a framework to exchange information and improve awareness.
Andrus Ansip, a commission vice-president responsible for the digital single market, said in December that the bloc should be “worried” about the risk that Huawei and other Chinese companies “had opened their systems for some kind of secret services” to use them as back doors.
Julian King, security union commissioner, said in January that it was “vital” countries used a diversity of 5G equipment manufacturers and addressed questions about “supply-chain integrity and the need for greater transparency regarding the provenance of technological components”.
Brussels’ decision to favour a non-binding approach and avoid outright prohibition of Chinese products contrasts with the hardening line in the US where Congress has banned government agencies from buying Huawei equipment.
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The security fears around 5G stem from its potential to become deeply embedded in daily life through its use in road and rail management to controlling household devices.
Gordon Sondland, Washington’s ambassador to the EU, warned this month that using Chinese 5G mobile technology risked making European countries vulnerable to Beijing “for the next 10 to 20 years”. He said use of the technology for sensitive functions could damage the ability of US military and intelligence “to be able to comfortably interlink with our allies and our friends in a way that doesn’t jeopardise our systems”.
Both Huawei and the Chinese government have denounced suggestions that the company poses security risks. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, last week branded western suspicions as “groundless accusations for political purposes” and called them abnormal and immoral.