EU scrambles to finish digital single market in 2018

The European Commission wants to wrap up negotiations on all digital single market files by the end of 2018---and still has a lot of work to do. [European Commission]

The European Commission has set a tough goal for 2018 of wrapping up legal negotiations on all 25 of the digital single market proposals that it announced since 2015. It will be an uphill battle: there are 13 files still open and fights are simmering over several contentious issues.

One year before the Commission’s current term ends, officials are scrambling to seal agreements on the outstanding legal bills. There are plenty of hard-to-resolve disagreements between national governments and MEPs, running from copyright reform to the so-called ePrivacy regulation.

But the Juncker administration has made the flagship digital single market programme a priority, and is sticking to its 2018 timetable.

“We want to reach the agreements on all digital single market legislative files by the end of the year. At the same time we also look into the problems that have emerged in the recent years such as disinformation online and illegal content on online platforms,” Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt said.

The EU executive is still planning to announce a few new tech policy measures this year.

Vandystadt named pending legislation on telecoms, the audiovisual media services directive (which affects broadcasting rules), ePrivacy, cybersecurity, copyright and the free flow of data as “cornerstones” of the now nearly three-year-old digital single market agenda.

A handful of digital files have already been agreed: negotiators wrapped up talks on e-commerce legislation that will make it easier for shoppers to buy online regardless of where they are in the EU, and rules that let consumers use digital subscriptions like Netflix when they travel within the bloc.

That has given consumer groups reason to be optimistic about the digital single market.

“The promise of a digital single market for consumers is something we see materialising in 2018,” said Johannes Kleis, director of communications at the European Consumer Organisation.

But negotiators are still tangled up in tense discussions over some of the most contentious files.

“Every time when the level of harmonisation of the Commission’s initial proposal is watered down even a tiny bit, we are moving away from the original vision of the Juncker Commission,” said Estonian Liberal MEP Kaja Kallas, who authored the Parliament’s report on the digital single market in 2015.

Kallas criticised negotiations over the draft copyright directive. The Commission proposed the bill in September 2016, and MEPs and national diplomats have not yet started three-way discussions on the legislation.

With old policy battles set to rage on and new initiatives expected out soon, EU tech policy will be forced to switch gears in order to meet the Commission’s 2018 deadline.

Tech policy insiders are hoping that the recent increase in manpower at the Commission could speed things up after the year started off with two digital chiefs. Bulgarian Commissioner Mariya Gabriel took office last summer, after her predecessor Günther Oettinger left the role in January 2017. He departed to oversee the EU budget, leaving the digital Commissioner post under Vice-President Andrus Ansip empty for six months.

The Brussels tech policy crowd is also warming up to Bulgaria’s new leadership role after the Balkan country took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU last week.

Estonia made digital policy a focus of its EU Council presidency when it held the role between July and December, and managed to broker a quick agreement between member states on the Commission’s proposal to enable data to move more freely across the EU.

Bulgaria’s Council presidency lacks the explicit digital focus that Estonia put at the centre of many legal negotiations with member states. But the new Council leaders are already under a lot of pressure on tech: the Commission recently published a timeline for this year’s digital policy talks that shifted 13 of the open files over to Bulgaria to broker agreements. If the Commission gets its way, only three bills will remain for Austria to steer through negotiations when it takes on the next Council presidency in July.

Bulgaria said it is aiming to help wrap up the digital single market this year.

“The programme of the Bulgarian presidency recognises the set timeline and reflects the goal to get EU fully geared up to the digital age. We have our efforts focused on continuing and finalising successfully the work of previous presidencies and will spare no effort on this,” a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian Council presidency said.

A Bulgarian presidency official told EURACTIV in December that the country will focus its digital policy work on reaching agreement on a sweeping overhaul of telecoms legislation, which already progressed quickly in discussions led by Estonia last year.

Bulgaria makes telecoms overhaul a focus during Council presidency

Bulgaria will focus its attention on speeding up negotiations on a major telecoms bill when it takes over the six-month, rotating presidency of the Council of ministers in January.

Dramatic single market

But there could be snags ahead when negotiators sit down again to discuss ePrivacy and copyright. Both files have gone through dramatic twists when their original MEP rapporteurs were replaced after leaving office to take seats in national parliaments.

They weren’t the only digital bills that tumbled through a difficult legal process. The rapporteur on the satellite and cable directive, another copyright file related to broadcasting, stepped back from leading the Parliament through negotiations last month because he disapproved of other MEPs’ changes to his report.

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MEPs have already approved their version of the ePrivacy bill, and the Commission has been amping up pressure for member states to pick up the pace on the file, which affects the privacy of telecoms services and digital apps like WhatsApp, and also outlines the rules for privacy “cookies” on websites. Industry groups are pushing for talks to move ahead more quickly.

“Industry remains deeply concerned about several files – in particular e-Privacy and copyright – which could undermine the key objectives of a digital single market,” said Lionel Sola, spokesman for lobby group DigitalEurope, which represents tech firms including Google and Microsoft.

Lead MEP: member states' slow pace on ePrivacy is unacceptable

Different political groups need to accept the European Parliament’s agreement on the draft ePrivacy regulation, even though conservative and centre-right MEPs opposed the bill, Birgit Sippel said in an interview with EURACTIV.com.

As discussions on the digital single market progress, the Commission is still cranking out a smattering of new policy plans.

Several of them will increase pressure on online platforms – on a number of different issues, ranging from how social media companies remove hate speech to B2B relationships between online firms.

Ansip and Gabriel are expected to present a new bill in April that will affect how online platforms agree on deals with other businesses.

The same month, the Commission is set to publish a strategy paper outlining how the EU should approach artificial intelligence.

In May, Commissioner Gabriel will be in the spotlight when she publishes a communication on so-called fake news. It’s a topic that Gabriel has claimed as her own since moving into the digital job last year. In November, she said the initiative will touch on how false information is circulated and financed online.

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Fake news is a disease that European society needs to be “vaccinated” against, the EU’s Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said as she opened a call for public comments on possible EU responses to the spread of false information on internet platforms.

Beyond the digital single market

A number of other tech issues that are not directly part of the digital single market programme are also likely to grab headlines this year.

Some tech observers argue that digital single market negotiations will be an easier battle compared to bigger policy fights that are brewing.

“Digital single market issues don’t create so much controversy and it’s important to move forward. They are challenges that can be overcome,” said Georgios Petropoulos, a research fellow at the think tank Bruegel. He said other issues, like an upcoming tax proposal, are likely to explode into longer fights between member states.

Early this year, the Commission will announce new measures on e-evidence that will give prosecutors more powers to obtain digital information from law enforcement authorities in other member states.

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In May, Ansip, Gabriel and justice chief Vera Jourova will announce whether or not the EU executive will create new legislation that forces social media platforms to remove posts containing hate speech. Up until now, firms like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have taken down posts as part of a non-binding agreement with the Commission. But the atmosphere has shifted, and the Commission has signalled it may be ready to propose hard law. Germany recently amped up pressure by introducing a controversial national law.

Another tech-related topics that could dominate policy makers’ attention this year is the Commission’s expected proposal to create a new taxation system targeting internet platforms.

France and Germany first floated the idea for a digital tax based on companies’ revenues last year. The Commission rushed to embrace the plan, publishing a communication in September with options for taxing digital firms’ profits. A legislative proposal could be out by this spring. But there has been pushback and member states are sharply divided over taxation, with countries like Luxembourg and Ireland leading opposition to the plans.