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Strengthening Europe's Cybersecurity: The Role of the European Cybersecurity Competence Centre

Strengthening Europe's Cybersecurity: The Role of the European Cybersecurity Competence Centre

Since its inception in 2021, the European Cybersecurity Competence Centre (ECCC) is on the cusp of becoming fully autonomous and is set to manage Horizon Europe grants dedicated to cybersecurity. This transition marks a significant step toward realizing the centre’s foundational goal of consolidating investments in research, development, and deployment to create a cohesive European cybersecurity ecosystem. Such an ecosystem aims to bolster Europe’s cyber defences and harmonize strategic planning across Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe Programme (DEP).

Later this year, the ECCC will assume responsibility for implementing Horizon Europe’s cybersecurity calls, with the European Commission transferring this role once the ECCC attains financial independence. Cybersecurity research constitutes about one-third of the expenditures in Cluster 3 of Horizon Europe’s ‘Civil Security for Society,’ which has earmarked a budget of €60.4 million for 2024. Currently, the ECCC is aiding the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect) in managing these calls, although a definitive date for the complete handover has not been set.

Recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure, including hospitals and energy grids. While new regulations like the Cyber Resilience Act and the EU Cyber Solidarity Act focus on establishing stringent rules for digital products and their deployment, research and innovation are pivotal as cyber threats become increasingly sophisticated.

“Technology is becoming so pervasive that we need in parallel to ensure there is a good level of protection, not just in the financial market, which has historically been better protected, but in the health sector, transportation, and beyond,” remarked Luca Tagliaretti, ECCC’s Executive Director, in an interview with Science|Business.

The ECCC’s governing board comprises representatives from EU member states and the European Commission. However, Tagliaretti emphasizes the importance of engaging with industry to set priorities and foster partnerships. A critical focus for the centre is supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which often lack the necessary resources for robust cybersecurity measures. “These are companies which don’t have the resources necessary to be protected,” Tagliaretti noted.

Europe is not lagging behind in developing new cybersecurity technologies, according to Tagliaretti, but it needs to intensify efforts to maintain competitiveness. “You need to keep running to ensure that you’re not falling behind,” he asserted.

The ECCC is bolstered by 27 National Coordination Centres (NCCs) that promote collaboration between government, industry, and researchers at the national level, facilitating the identification of partners for transnational projects. These NCCs provide the ECCC with feedback on funding priorities.

The centre has already taken on the management of four DEP grants, supporting 113 projects across Europe. By the end of the year, the ECCC aims to distribute €700 million in funding. DEP focuses on the deployment of digital technologies, with the EU covering 50% of the project costs.

Moreover, the ECCC will coordinate with other programmes that have a cybersecurity component, such as the European Defence Fund (EDF), to prevent duplication of efforts. EDF recently released its 2024 calls, including a €48 million call for developing a next-generation cooperative cyber range, a virtual environment used for training or technological development.

Having NCCs as focal points in member states is a strategic move. Countries like Belgium and Italy quickly embraced this concept, and others are following suit, said Matteo Merialdo of Belgian cybersecurity company Nexova. He believes the ECCC will be crucial in linking Horizon Europe and DEP, avoiding redundancy in research topics, and unifying the ecosystem. “Coordination is essential because there are branches of knowledge where the efforts of a single member state are not enough to compete in a global market,” Merialdo commented.

European programmes can generate the critical mass needed to reduce the EU’s dependence on US cybersecurity products. “I don’t think we have anything to envy the US from a knowledge perspective, but from a coordination perspective, there is definitely still an important gap,” Merialdo observed.

Merialdo, who managed ECHO, one of four Horizon 2020 pilot projects that laid the groundwork for the ECCC, highlighted the importance of networking over technology in cybersecurity calls. ECHO brought together 32 partners and 15 affiliated partners to address specific research areas like simulation and cyber ranges. Half of the ECHO consortium has reunited for an EDF project, ACTING, building on Horizon 2020’s work.

The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) is also pivotal in enhancing cooperation across the continent. Under the EU Cybersecurity Act of 2019, ENISA received an expanded mandate to monitor research and development activities across academia and industry and to advise EU bodies on research needs.

Prokopios Drogkaris, a cybersecurity expert at ENISA, stressed the necessity of research and innovation funding to tackle emerging threats. “As technology moves, so the countermeasures should be able to move at the same pace, if not quicker, and for that, you need to have at the European level the possibility to proactively anticipate and react to forthcoming threats,” he said.

Drogkaris welcomed the prioritization of cybersecurity in the Horizon Europe strategic plan for 2025-2027, which calls for further investment in response to “the growing number of incidents in cyberspace and the current geopolitical context.” This plan underscores the need to protect major technologies, including cloud data storage, digital twins, metaverse applications, artificial intelligence deployment, and the transition to post-quantum cryptography. “The cybersecurity of emerging technologies needs to be ensured,” the plan states.

ENISA’s annual threat landscape report indicates a significant rise in malware, misinformation, and threats against supply chains and denial of service attacks, exacerbated by ongoing geopolitical tensions and conflicts such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These cyberattacks illustrate the modern warfare landscape, where many new technologies have dual civil and military applications.

One of the ECCC’s objectives is to facilitate cooperation between civil and defence sectors, although the budget for dual-use technologies remains small and underutilized. “To do that, we need to build a relationship with the European Defence Agency, and maybe with NATO,” Tagliaretti noted.

The European Commission is considering increasing support for dual-use technologies and may review the exclusive civilian clause in parts of Horizon Europe’s successor programme, with cybersecurity being a primary focus for potential new rules. This shift reflects a broader strategy to enhance Europe’s cybersecurity capabilities in response to evolving global threats.