The European Commission is coming under pressure to explain why it believes no suitable candidates have emerged to replace the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) – the EU’s data protection watchdog – and his deputy, when the pair’s term of office expires on 16 January.
Europeans have reacted angrily to revelations that US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American Web giants' reach and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are about to launch transatlantic trade talks.
The European Commission published in January 2012 a broad legislative package aimed at safeguarding personal data across the EU.
The package consists of two legislative proposals: a general regulation on data protection (directly applicable in all member states) and a specific directive (to be transposed into national laws) on data protection in the area of police and justice.
The two proposals have been discussed extensively in the European Parliament and the Council and are due to be voted on by the Parliament in the near future.
Peter Hustinx, a Dutchman who is the current serving EDPS, wrote to the Commission this week (7 January) warning of his “serious concerns” about the procedures for the selection and appointments of the two jobs.
The job vacancies were advertised last September, and it was expected that the Commission might post a short-list of candidates in December for subsequent consideration by the European Parliament and Council, jointly responsible for confirming the roles.
Candidates considered unsuitable
Anthony Gravili, spokesperson for Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who is in charge of administration and the addressee of Hustinx's letter, told EurActiv that the relevant selection board had advised that no suitable candidates had put their names forward.
He said that Šefčovič intended to meet Hustinx next week to discuss the vacancies, and to ask him to remain in place on an ad hoc basis. Hustinx who announced his retirement last year, is believed to want to vacate the role as close to the due date as possible.
Hustinx copied his letter to the Parliament’s civil liberties justice and home affairs committee (LIBE), which has written in similar terms to Šefčovič expressing concern, and could raise the issue today (9 January) in its first meeting of the year.
“The uncertainty and possibility of long delays that may be involved, as well as their different consequences, are likely to harm the effectiveness and authority of the EDPS over the coming months,” Hustinx warned in his letter to Šefčovič.
Recalling the sensitivity of the timing with the data protection proposal under consideration, Hustinx added: “The EU is presently in a critical period for the fundamental rights of privacy and data protection, and a strong mandate is required to provide the authority to ensure that these fundamental rights are fully taken into account at EU level.”
Powerful role at critical moment
EurActiv understands that candidates whose names went forward – rejected from consideration – included at least two current serving data protection supervisers within EU member states.
“Everyone in the Parliament is the dark on the matter and there is a lot of speculation about political motives. If they are unfounded then the Commission had better come up with an explanation pretty quickly,” said Dutch liberal MEP Sophie In 't Veld, a member of the LIBE committee.
Gravili said that the Commission had no control over the decision of the independent selection board to reject the candidates.
The EDPS plays a powerful role in calling the EU institutions to account. In June last year Hustinx warned EurActiv in an interview that the European institutions were tracking users of their web sites, in a breach of the EU's own data protection rules.
- 9 Jan. 2014: Parliament's LIBE Committee expected to discuss the vacancies during meeting today
- 16 Jan. 2014: Date of expiry of the formal terms of the current European Data Protection Superviser and his deputy.