Romania’s capital Bucharest came out victorious this week in a tight race to host a research hub called the European Cybersecurity Competence Center.
So what did the trick?
Romania’s a tech-savvy country that leveraged its reputation and pushed the idea that EU power shouldn’t all be concentrated in Brussels, the city it pipped to the top spot.
The center, which will manage billions in European Union research funding on things like encryption and network security, was originally envisaged to be Brussels-based, close to the EU’s main institutions. But a power struggle between the Commission and member countries opened the race for other cities to pitch proposals.
Seven did — Brussels, Bucharest, Vilnius, Luxembourg, Warsaw, León and Munich. In a tight vote late on Wednesday national diplomats selected Bucharest, casting 15 votes in its favor in a second round.
The city will host about 30 officials to start and up to 80 later on to fund and oversee research projects on cybersecurity. EU negotiators clinched a deal on how the center will function Friday. Once that text is approved in the EU’s Parliament and Council, the Bucharest center can launch, probably early next year.
Here’s how the Romanian capital won the bidding:
It’s got skills
Romania has built up a reputation for cybersecurity by strengthening national capabilities.
Romania brands itself as IT-savvy and scores well on rankings of digital skills and education. Its bid showed it ranks third in EU statistics on women employees in tech. It’s a solid performer in broadband internet speed rankings, and has a proven track record of producing successful tech companies.
The country’s talent pool “is one of the most important assets. That human capital in IT is one of the best in Europe,” a high-level Romanian diplomat who requested to remain anonymous.
That talent can have a dark side too. Romania has a sprawling underground scene of cybercriminals that occasionally taints its reputation — though not enough to have swung the vote. One town earned itself the nickname “Hackerville.” High-profile Romanian hackers have been extradited to the U.S., prosecuted and sentenced in past years — including “Guccifer,” the hacker that helped exposed Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email domain while she was Secretary of State.
It’s not Brussels
Bucharest beat Belgium’s capital Brussels by just three votes in the second round on Wednesday.
Doing so was another demonstration of how governments from across Europe still feel a little queasy when it comes to sharing power on issues of national security, often closely linked with cybersecurity.
In protracted negotiations over the functioning of the center, the Commission clashed hard with national diplomats over who should hold decision-making power, including voting rights on the center’s governance.
“The problem with the Brussels bid is that it’s a bit boring, it’s again in Brussels and so it has not been a very sexy application,” one member state official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the selection procedure.
It doesn’t have an EU agency
Until now, Romania has been unsuccessful in its bids to host EU organizations. The country doesn’t host an official EU agency yet (there are dozens spread across Europe).
“The EU doesn’t have one capital, it has 27 capitals, and we should bring EU closer to citizens wherever they are,” said the Romanian diplomat.
In 2017 — 10 years after its accession to the EU — Romania was part of a handful of cities bidding to host one of the two EU agencies that left Britain because of Brexit. Despite Bucharest’s candidacy, electors chose Amsterdam and Paris to host the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority in a tense selection procedure.
The process laid bare a split in between Europe’s Western, older members and its newer members, to the frustration of the latter.
Romania now gets a small consolation. The Cybersecurity Competence Center isn’t an official “agency”; it’s an EU body similar to structural research projects the EU has launched in the past, but it still comes with dozens of jobs and a budget of billions of euros.
Its networks are secure
The EU Commission’s internal market chief Thierry Breton in June told national telecom ministers that it is “essential” the center, “will have to rely on secure networks … especially when it comes to telecom operators,” in an attempt to nudge countries to speed up implementation of the EU’s proposed 5G security measures.
Romania claimed it can tick that box. It has been one of a handful countries that have gone full-steam ahead in drafting new, stricter policies for telecom operators to decrease reliance on Chinese 5G equipment.
It was the first EU country to sign a “memorandum of understanding” with the Trump administration last year to push out so-called “high-risk” 5G vendors. The Romanian government even prompted threats of legal action by Chinese giant Huawei to challenge its national laws.
It is modest
But Romania’s bid of a modest location, where the living is cheap and the working is easy, still pleased the panel of national diplomats.
The government offered three prospective locations, one a renovated neoclassical villa, another a modern office block and the third an interwar eight-storey block.
Leonie Cater, Carmen Paun, Matei Rosca and Vincent Manancourt contributed reporting.
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