In a spectacular but somewhat expected U-turn, the UK will phase out Huawei’s equipment from its budding 5G network. Companies will be prevented from purchasing products made by the Chinese tech behemoth starting January 1st, 2021.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden also told telecoms companies that they must eradicate all of Huawei’s 5G kits from their infrastructures by 2027 – a move that has been criticised as overly complex and damaging, including by members of the governing Conservative Party.
British prime minister Boris Johnson had a change of heart just months after granting Huawei the permission to build large parts of the UK’s 5G network. The move comes after mounting pressure from the United States on Western allies to ban potentially unsecure Chinese tech from telecoms masts – a threat that Beijing disputes.
Huawei has commented the event as “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone” and threatened that this would “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide.”
Washington – and other European nations including the UK and Italy – feel that the risk of Chinese espionage is too dangerous a bet for the development of next-gen telecoms infrastructures such as 5G. However, the China-USA “tech Cold War” and their economic rivalry heavily weigh in on the matter.
On Tuesday, three officials from the White House met their French, Italian and German counterparts in Paris, allegedly to discuss China and 5G among other dossiers. Robert O’Brien and Matthew Pottinger (president Donald Trump’s national security adviser and second-in-command, respectively) together with Ryan Tully (head of European and Russian Affairs at the National Security Council) must have voiced the USA’s desire to limit the rise of Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE while promoting European alternatives, such as Nokia and Ericsson.
Other than the US, only the UK has gone as far as imposing a blanket ban on Huawei. Now that London has sided with Washington, however, more European countries will have to decide where they stand.
This holds particularly true for Italy, where private companies are acting faster than the government in taking a decision. Just last week, major Italian telecoms company TIM dropped Huawei from its tender for the construction of the nation’s 5G network.
Huawei’s Italian branch issued a statement that noted how the British government had justified its “disappointing course inversion” with regards to the sanctions imposed by the US, despite the “lack of proof or violations on Huawei’s behalf.”
“We expect the Italian government to continue its digitalisation process on the grounds of objective security criteria, independent and transparent for all suppliers, that preserve market diversity and competition. We uphold our full commitment to collaborate with Italian authorities and our clients to reach the highest IT security standards in Italy and supply the best technological solutions.”
We reached out to Mirella Liuzzi, undersecretary to the minister for economic development and member of the parliamentary technology oversight panel. “I believe [the UK’s decision to ban Huawei] was a choice dictated by several reasons, including geopolitical ones. […] Obviously this move will have a significant impact on the market” she said.
Ms. Liuzzi highlighted Italy’s sprawling digital security measures, which are being developed as the 5G infrastructure grows. While acknowledging that “technical difficulties” are curbing the full implementation of such measures, she stressed how Italian lawmakers have heeded security concerns and given themselves more power to deal with 5G matters than any other European country, minus France.
Five Star’s governing partners, the Democratic Party, have taken a more cautious stance towards Chinese 5G. MP Enrico Borghi, who is member of the parliamentary security commission COPASIR, has recently called for a “delegated authority” with the power to oversee the implementation of 5G.
Democrat and minister of defence Lorenzo Guerini urged the nation to place national security “before any economic evaluation” last November. His party colleague and minister for European affairs Enzo Amendola has repeatedly advocated for a joint European response on the matter.
Members of the parliamentary opposition, generally adverse to Chinese 5G and more Atlanticist than the Five Star, have spoken favourably about London’s choice. Matteo Salvini, leader of the opposition and of the League, has told us in the past that he strongly opposed the installation of Chinese 5G in Italy.
“Only the Italian government (particularly the Five Star) remain unflinchingly faithful to the Chinese regime and deaf to any alarm,” wrote League MP Paolo Grimoldi on Twitter.