Commissioner Breton has publicly called for EU countries to accelerate their replacement of high risk vendors from their 5G networks.

Speaking at an event organised by French telco group Orange, EU Commissioner in charge of the internal market Thierry Breton addressed a number of issues affecting the bloc’s telecoms sector. On the matter of ‘high risk’ (essentially a euphemism for ‘Chinese’ in this context, which principally means Huawei) vendors, he was especially strident.

“Replacement of high risk vendors [is] very important,” said Breton. “All member states signed the agreement to follow the 5G toolbox requirements. Some did – congratulations – some are late. We cannot afford to stay this way, we need to accelerate here.”

Breton was referring to the framework the EU developed in early 2020. While the 5G toolbox didn’t explicitly call for the outright banning of high risk vendors at the time, Breton seems to be indicating it has evolved in that direction. Awkwardly, the country with the most to do on that front is Germany, which is the dominant member state of the EU.

Coinciding with Breton’s speech was a report by the FT, citing anonymous officials as the source of the news that the EU is considering a mandatory ban on high risk vendors in member state 5G networks. It’s reasonable to assume the EU decided to leak this information to the FT in order to augment and spread Breton’s message that if members don’t do as their told voluntarily, he’s ready to force them.

This issue was covered extensively in a recent Podcast featuring Analyst John Strand, so we reached out to him for comment on these subsequent developments. “The story in FT is a very clear signal to the 27 member states and the operators from The European Commission, that they should solve the problem themselves,” said Strand. “Alternatively the EU will have to ensure that we have a secure digital infrastructure.

“We have recently seen Portugal make a clear statement, and it did not take long before Margrethe Vestager came out in support of the government in Portugal after Huawei had made a number of their classic threats. Conversely, the EU is just doing what China has been doing for many years. That said, remember that the biggest pressure on operators doesn’t come from governments but from their business customers.

“The EU has succeeded in crafting its approach mobile network security – the 5G toolbox – in a diplomatic, nuanced way which cannot be interpreted as prejudiced to any country or vendor. European policymakers accept the reality of the digital economy and society and demand network security which is built to last and impervious to the inevitable legal challenges and workarounds which undermine US security measures.”

It seems unlikely that China would agree with Strand’s characterisation of the 5G toolbox, especially as the EU position hardens towards its telecoms vendors. But all this puts a number of EU members in a tricky position. Germany still features Huawei kit extensively in its 5G networks, which would cost billions to swap out. A showdown between Germany and the European Commission over this matter seems imminent.

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