AI & EU: Why do we need a pan-European regulation?

, by Aldan Creo

AI & EU: Why do we need a pan-European regulation?
Eric Mamer, Chief Spokesperson of the European Commission and Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton while presenting the proposal for an AI act Photo: European Union, 2021 / Aurore Martignoni / Copyright information

Artificial intelligence (AI) can create many benefits, but also risks to people’s safety, rights and privacy. The EU has just proposed the first-ever legal framework on AI, which sets clear and harmonised rules for AI development and use across all member states.

However, there have been lots of questions about whether this is the right approach. From its effects on innovation, to its impact on the EU’s competitiveness, there are many concerns that need to be addressed. In this article, we will try to answer some of these questions, and explain why the EU is the best possible actor to regulate AI. We will also discuss how this fits into the broader trend towards a more united Europe, and what it means for a federal Europe.

What’s all the fuss about?

You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about AI in the news lately. It’s a hot topic, and for good reason. AI is a powerful technology that can be used to solve many problems, from writing your emails, to developing new drugs that cure diseases. But it also has the potential to cause harm, if not used properly. For example, AI can be used to create fake news, or to manipulate people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. This is why it’s important to regulate AI, and make sure it’s used for good, not evil.

However, not all approaches would be equally as effective. For example, if each country were to create its own AI regulation, this would create a lot of fragmentation and legal uncertainty. Moreover, most individual countries do not have enough power to ensure that global companies follow their legislation. Only bigger actors, like the US or the EU, can do that. Therefore, a pan-European regulation is necessary to create a level playing field and foster innovation in AI.

What is the EU doing about it?

The EU AI Act is a proposal for a directive, yet to be approved by the European Council (i.e. it may change), that revolves around three main pillars:

 The introduction of the notion of “Risk”. It categorizes AI systems into levels, ranging from minimal (Spotify’s song recommendation engine) to unacceptable risk (mass surveillance). This tiered system allows for proportionate regulations, while encouraging the responsible deployment of AI technologies.
 Specific requirements for data privacy, governance and bias. For example, it requires that AI systems be trained on data that is representative of the population, and that they are transparent about how they make decisions.
 A governance structure to oversee compliance and enforcement. It includes the creation of national competent authorities responsible for monitoring AI systems’ conformity with the regulation. Furthermore, a European Artificial Intelligence Board will coordinate and facilitate cooperation between member states, ensuring consistent application of the regulation across the bloc.

All in all, the EU AI Act seems like a step in the right direction. However, some may argue that it is too restrictive, and that it will stifle innovation. This is a valid concern, especially since one of the core principles of the EU, along with the protection of human rights, is the promotion of a free economy through the single market. This is why the act introduces the notion of “regulatory sandboxes” - safe spaces where companies can test their AI systems without having to comply with all the requirements of the regulation, before their product reaches the general public. That way, the EU aims to strike a balance between protecting citizens and fostering innovation. So far, so good.

Why the EU?

Now that we know what it plans to do, let’s take a look at why the EU is the right actor to do it, rather than individual member states.

First of all, the EU is a huge market with millions of customers. This gives it a lot of power to influence companies’ behaviour, and ensure that they follow its legislation. For example, if a company wants to sell its products in the EU, it has to comply with the EU’s data protection laws. This is why the EU is often referred to as a “regulatory superpower”.

Secondly, as it has the power to create binding laws that apply to all member states, it can ensure that there is a level playing field for all companies operating in the EU, regardless of where they are based. This is important because it prevents unfair competition between companies from different states, but most importantly, because it allows companies to quickly scale up their operations across the bloc, without having to worry about complying with different regulations in each country. This is especially important for the tech industry, where companies often have to scale up quickly in order to stay competitive.

Thirdly, the EU has a lot of experience in regulating new technologies. For example, it has already implemented a groundbreaking regulatory framework for data privacy (GDPR). This means that it has the expertise to create effective regulations for AI. In fact, the legislation that it proposes is frequently used as a model by other countries.

Finally, it is not alone in its efforts to regulate AI. Other countries have also introduced similar legislation, such as the Algorithmic Accountability Act in the US. Combined with the proposed regulatory sandboxes, this means that researchers and innovators will have plenty of reasons to choose to develop their AI systems in the EU, where they will benefit from a comprehensive regulatory framework that minimizes uncertainty, and finds ways to balance innovation with the protection of human rights.

What does it mean for a federal Europe?

The EU AI Act is a good example of how the EU can use its regulatory power to create a level playing field for its member states, in order to further integrate the bloc. This is part of a broader trend towards a more united Europe, where the EU takes on more responsibilities, as a result of the increasing interdependence between member states.

Furthermore, the tech industry is likely the best test subject for this approach, as it is one of the most globalized industries, and therefore, one that demands a unified regulatory framework. So it is likely that we will see more of this in the future, as the EU continues to expand its regulatory power. In fact, the EU has also recently passed legislation on a framework for digital services (DSA) and the digital market (DMA), as well the introduction of the European Digital Identity (eID). These are some examples of how the EU can leverage its regulatory power to pursue its goals of further integration and digital sovereignty.

And for European federalists like us, this is good news. The EU AI Act is a step in the right direction, and it shows that the EU is determined to keep working on the protection of our European way of life, as the Commission puts it. This is something that we should support, as it will help us steer the EU towards a fairer and more democratic future, wishfully under a federal government.

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