The trade and digital diplomacy nexus: markets, connectivity and technology

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Global Europe
The Trade and Digital Diplomacy Nexus: markets, connectivity and technology


Participants at the Friends of Europe roundtable, entitled “The trade and digital diplomacy nexus: markets, connectivity and technology”, hosted on 16 March in partnership with HCL Technologies, discussed the many linkages between trade, connectivity and technology against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“How do we ensure that the role of Europe is not only to export goods and services, but also its model?” asked moderator and Director at Friends of Europe, Dharmendra Kanani. “How can it shape behaviour through its trade and diplomatic connections?”

“The invasion [of Ukraine] has brought up the importance of robust and sustainable digital connectivity and has proven absolutely critical,” said Romana Vlahutin, Ambassador at Large for Connectivity at the European External Action Service (EEAS).

She explained how the Russian invasion has highlighted several “existential issues” when it comes to digital connectivity and that there is a need to invest more and better in three distinct issues, namely physical and human infrastructure, trust and security.

“If we really want to ensure the growth of economy-based data, we need to find common rules and interoperability,” she said, adding that trust is the most important commodity when it comes to digital connectivity.

According to Vlahutin, digital technologies have “created dependencies that can be weaponised” and there is a need to “invest in the resilience of these systems”. “We have to understand the security side of things and how incredibly dependent we are on the system we have built,” she said. “For all this, you need diplomacy.”

“The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, but the digital revolution goes beyond communication,” said Hong Huai Lim, Ambassador of Singapore to the European Union.

“The digital revolution is going to be as profound and impactful on global prosperity as was the Industrial Revolution and will transform the social fabric of society,” he stated.

The Ambassador highlighted the need to “transform our economies and workers for the digital age” and said that countries need to do more to invest in the digital frameworks of the future. At the same time, the digital transformation will be very disruptive, particularly for those less skilled. He therefore advocated for providing “lifelong education” so that workers have the skills to compete.

“We need to work collaboratively with stakeholders and leave no one behind,” he said. There is an incentive to deepen global integration in the digital domain, he explained, and referenced regional trade agreements that have established rules to facilitate e-commerce.

“Digital economy agreements can help provide common reference points on digital trade and serve as building blocks for architecture,” he said. “Digital technology has empowered millions, but the digital divide has also widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.”

Tadej Rupel, National Coordinator for External Aspects of Digitalization, AI & Cyber Security at the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said how we are currently living in a “TUNA” world – “turbulent, uncertain, novel and ambiguous”.

“What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow,” he said. “Digital cooperation must keep pace with the accelerating shift towards a digital world, otherwise we risk a digital divide.” He explained how marginal countries risk being left behind as digital technologies reshape societies.

“The EU and its member states have the responsibility to show that there are alternatives beyond what China and the United States propose,” he explained. Digital diplomacy can help reach agreement on norms, he argued, rather than relying too much on state actors and technology companies.

“The agenda will be determined by those whose ideas are acceptable to [the] global majority,” concluded Vlahutin, who also called for non-state actors to be brought into the conversation.



Heavily emphasized in the context of pandemic recovery, connectivity and digitalization have become drivers of globalization and successful trade policies. The pandemic and rapid technological growth of a selected few have highlighted, however, the global digital divide and growing vulnerabilities produced by this digitalization. As trade is mainstreamed into foreign policy, the dependence of national digital policies and connectivity grids on foreign parties has become the most pertinent example of the need to rethink the trade-diplomacy nexus. This roundtable will discuss best practices to open small- and medium-sized countries’ access to ameliorated digital policies and close the global digital gap, and explore possibilities for collaboration that will create a powerful network of knowledge-sharing and technological cooperation.

This discussion is part of our ‘Rethinking the Trade-Diplomacy Nexus’ series, and will bring recommendations of the network to a wider audience.

Discussants include Romana Vlahutin, Ambassador at Large for Connectivity at the European External Action Service (EEAS); Hong Huai Lim, Ambassador of Singapore to the European Union; Sek Wannamethee, Ambassador of Thailand to the European Union; Cyn-Young Park, Director for Regional Cooperation and Integration at the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB); Ahmad Rozian Abd Ghani, Ambassador-designate of Malaysia to the European Union; Violeta Bulc, Curator of Ecocivilisation and former European Commissioner for Transport; Maria Castillo Fernandez, Ambassador of the European Union to the Republic of Korea; Didier De Baere, Deputy Director-General of the Belgian Foreign Trade Agency;  Eduardo de Vega, Ambassador of the Philippines to the European Union; Torbjörn Fredriksson, Head of the eCommerce and Digital Economy Branch at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); Barbara Plinkert, Head of Division for Southeast Asia and ASEAN at the European External Action Service (EEAS); and Tadej Rupel, National Coordinator for External Aspects of Digitalization, AI and Cyber at the Slovenian Foreign Ministry.

PHOTO CREDIT: Flickrk/Pulperm Phungprachit



Participants connect to online platform
The trade and digital diplomacy nexus: markets, connectivity and technology
Expand The trade and digital diplomacy nexus: markets, connectivity and technology

Questions to be discussed include:

  • Can emerging technologies help small and medium-sized countries adapt to the effects of climate change?
  • What role can the EU play in closing the digital gap in small- and medium-sized countries?
  • Can greater global digital equity support a more equitable global trading system?
End of online debate


Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

Show more information on Dharmendra Kanani

Prior to joining Friends of Europe, Dharmendra Kanani was director of policy at the European Foundation Centre (EFC). He was the England director at the Big Lottery Fund, the largest independent funder in the UK and fourth largest in the world. Dharmendra has held senior positions in the public and voluntary sectors and advisor to numerous ministerial policy initiatives across the UK.



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