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Five Eyes, Six Eyes, Europe’s Eyes? Europe-Five Eyes Cooperation in the Face of China

In January 2021, reports of French Naval Staff Admiral Pierre Vandier’s visit to Tokyo late last year revealed that France is engaged with Japan and Five Eyes in establishing a potential “Five Eyes Plus Two” framework (Teufel Dreyer, 2021). This is the latest in a line of news that suggest that Europe’s cooperation with Five Eyes has been increasing over the past years, and is likely to increase in the future. In 2018, Reuters already reported that France, Germany and Japan were joining Five Eyes in a “Five Eyes Plus Three” framework, and, five years before that, Germany and France had both urged the U.S. to come to an agreement with them, similar to the existing agreement between the Five Eyes states (Barkin, 2018; O’Donnell & Baker, 2013).

Comprised of the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, “Five Eyes” is the largest known signals intelligence (SIGINT) network in the world. Originally established in 1946 to enhance SIGINT sharing and cooperation to counter Soviet Russia, the network has operated from the shadows for decades. This only changed when the Snowden Revelations undeniably confirmed its existence, forcing Five Eyes into the public eye (Nicholson, 2019). Since then, more has changed; with the rise of a new rival, it has increasingly panned its scope further east, to Xi Jinping’s revisionist China. That shift has given new meaning and appeal to Five Eyes, both internally and externally. In August 2020, Japan was the first state in recent years to publicly express its desire to formally join Five Eyes as a “Sixth Eye,” citing fears over China. The request was warmly welcomed by many in the intelligence community, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, suggesting that after 75 years of consistent membership, Five Eyes membership could finally be expanded (Rachman, 2021; Wintour, 2020).

These developments raise important questions that need to be addressed with regards to Europe’s enhanced cooperation with the network. What key benefits lie in enhanced Europe-Five Eyes cooperation, as the network shifts its focus towards China? What hurdles does Europe still need to cross to realize greater cooperation? And, how might a closer Europe-Five Eyes relationship affect Europe-China relations?

Indo-Pacific strategy reports released by France, Germany and the Netherlands between 2019-2020 all express deep worries regarding Chinese actions in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. One particular worry are the growing cyber security threats that emanate from China and to a lesser degree also Russia (Federal Foreign Office, 2020; Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2019; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2020). This is one problem that Europe-Five Eyes cooperation has already partly alleviated through the “Five Eyes Plus Three” framework, which has strengthened France and Germany’s resilience against Russian and Chinese foreign influence and cyber operations (Barkin, 2018; Wada & Akiyama, 2019). Other perceived threats, such as China’s antagonism in the Indo-Pacific maritime domains, may be reduced by such cooperation as well. According to the Clingendael Institute and Hague Center for Strategic Studies, “intelligence can provide the information needed to establish the facts on the ground to support diplomatic positions, possible military actions, and above all information operations” (Thompson, Pronk, & Van Manen, 2021). These are problems that European states cannot solve on their own, and where Five Eyes has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, however, there are significant obstacles that need to be cleared before Europe can take the next step.

Firstly, although Europe’s ad hoc cooperation with Five Eyes dates back decades, its public relationship with the intelligence network came off to a bad start with the ECHELON affair in the late 90s and the Snowden Revelations in 2014. These events exposed Five Eyes intelligence operations that targeted European businesses, diplomats and politicians, and set Europe on a path to become the world’s number one data protection advocate (O’Donnell & Baker, 2013; Piodi & Mombelli, 2014). In 2016, this culminated in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the world’s most comprehensive data protection regulation to date. Whilst the GDPR was a victory for consumer rights, it put Europe at odds with Five Eyes; that is because while the GDPR expressly exempts European intelligence agencies from its remits, foreign intelligence agencies do not enjoy the same privilege.

This issue came to new light in 2020, when the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) shared its verdict on the Schrems-II case; the verdict voided the existing EU-U.S. data-sharing agreement, on the grounds that it was in violation of the GDPR, due to the United States’ data-sharing agreement with the Five Eyes states (Smith, 2020). Although sceptics expect the EU will take a pragmatic approach and continue sharing intelligence data regardless (European Data Protection Supervisor, 2020; Smith, 2020), it nonetheless puts a finger on a sore spot for enhancing cooperation with Five Eyes. Continuing to share data and intelligence as usual is one thing, but enhancing it at a time when the CJEU has effectively declared a part of the existing framework unlawful is whole other. It took the EU two years to reach a GDPR-compliant data-sharing agreement with Japan, which even required Japan to change its national laws (Kobie, 2020); so, if the EU wants to avoid undermining its voice as the world’s champion of data protection, the Schrems-II verdict may yet delay deeper Europe-Five Eyes cooperation by months or even years.

Secondly, the European Union and its member states are loath to antagonize China more than necessary. As such, France has explicitly rejected the bipolarization of U.S.-China relations (Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2019), a sentiment which German chancellor Angela Merkel echoed when she warned against anti-China sentiment dividing the world into blocs (Rachman, 2021). This is particularly relevant when it comes to Europe’s economic ties to China, something which European states are deeply afraid to jeopardize. The fact that the EU-China investment treaty was concluded last year, despite the pleas and criticisms from the U.S. and human rights advocates (Cavanaugh, 2021; Rachman, 2021), is an example of that. And yet, European states cannot turn a blind eye to U.S. concerns over China, out of a fear that the U.S. will decrease its contributions to NATO and European security (Martin, Filipovic, & Crawford, 2020). This forces Europe into trade-off that China is very well aware of.

China has long looked critically at Five Eyes, but its relationship to the network entered a maelstrom during the Five Eyes-led global campaign against Chinese manufacturer Huawei’s 5G telecommunications equipment. Subsequently, in 2019, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece, the Global Times, called Five Eyes “a way for the U.S. to “[try] to control the internet” (Global Times, 2019), in 2020 they called it an “anti-China alliance” (Sheng, 2020), and in 2021 a Global Times editorial title read “Five Eyes today’s axis of white supremacy” (Global Times, 2021). Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, also sent out a clear warning to Five Eyes and its partners on November 19, 2020, when he said: “[It doesn’t] matter how many eyes they have, five or ten or whatever, should anyone dare to undermine China's sovereignty, security and development interests, be careful not to get poked in the eye” (Lijian, 2020). With that statement comes the understanding that, in China’s eyes, cooperation with Five Eyes and (economic) relations with China has become a zero-sum game.

Nevertheless, news of Europe’s increasing involvement with Five Eyes has been largely ignored or used to critique the United States, not Europe. News of the establishment of the “Five Eyes Plus Three” formation in 2018, for example, was discussed in only one article, which ignored Germany and France’s involvement entirely and instead focused wholly on Japan and the U.S. (Yucai, 2019). Another article, published around the same time, criticized the U.S. and suggested that China’s Digital Silk Road would protect Europe from Five Eyes’ surveillance practices (Global Times, 2019). Recent reports of France’s possible involvement in a “Five Eyes Plus Two” format were equally ignored. Does that mean China is okay with Europe’s cooperation with Five Eyes, or is simply curtailing its criticisms of Europe in the hopes that Europe will continue to temper the U.S? More than likely, it is the latter. China is fully aware of the threat Five Eyes poses to its national security, and it seems highly unlikely that China will not retaliate, once it believes a critical point has been reached in Europe’s cooperation with Five Eyes. Where that point lies, however, is tough to say.

Europe’s benefits to enhanced cooperation with Five Eyes are plenty and relevant to the security challenges it faces today, but just as significant as the benefits, are the hurdles Europe still needs to cross. How much are regional security and enhanced cooperation worth? In the short term, Europe may be able to shrug off the illegality of its data-sharing practices under the GDPR, and please privacy advocates with adequacy reviews, but in the long term the violation of Europe’s own data privacy crownpiece is sure to harm its international credibility. China has already called out the hypocrisy of Five Eyes’ call for backdoors in encrypted apps (Tengjun, 2020; U.S. Department of Justice, 2020), and would undoubtedly do the same to Europe if it continues to violate its own laws. Despite its still moderate tone, China’s patience towards Europe-Five Eyes will run out, and Europe only stands to antagonize China if it continues to pursue its current path. Until then, European states walk a thin line between the United States, China and European security.



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