Data protection: France, UK lead rival camps at summit

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SPECIAL REPORT / EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is looking to France to spearhead a move to pull the data protection regulation up the agenda at today’s EU leaders’ summit, fearing that the current conclusions leave the proposals exposed to delay.

The summit draft statement states that the adoption “next year” of the EU general data protection regulation “is essential for the stability and growth of the Digital Single Market”.

A high-ranking EU official said the European Commission hoped that the wording would change to “next Spring”, rather than “next year” to give more impetus to the proposal and ensure that it is adopted by then.

On Monday (21 October) lawmakers in the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee voted to strengthen Europe's data protection laws, including plans to impose fines of up to €100 million on companies such as Yahoo!, Facebook or Google if they break the rules.

“Parliament is ready to negotiate with the Council, so to say 'next year' is no more significant than saying the sun rises in the east,” said the official.

France, Poland leading data protection push

EU sources made clear that they believe France’s president, François Hollande, and Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, will lead the support amongst member states keen to give added impetus to the data protection regulation.

Poland is believed to be supportive as a result of its legacy as a Soviet satellite, when its citizens were subject to heavy surveillance.

Meanwhile the Commission views the UK as the leader of a group of countries seeking to delay the passage of the regulation, and convert it into a directive to dilute its impact.

Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden are also believed to be supportive of this position.

The Commission source said that the UK’s position appeared contradictory: “On the one hand they claim that they favour a regime that encourages more free trade, on the other they are actively seeking to preserve a fragmented regime in which there are 28 data protection authorities across the EU,” said the EU official.

The UK will not support a change in the wording of the conclusions to speed up the progress of the data protection regulation.

The Parliament, and Reding, have consistently tied the need for stronger data protection to acknowledge alleged privacy abuses – including by member states – arising from data leaked by former US espionage contractor Edward Snowden.

In an interview with EurActiv, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, the director of Brussels-based think-tank the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), said: “Intelligence is like underwear, everyone has it but you are not supposed to show it off… The problem is that the Parliament does not have an intelligence agency and they are furious.”

Germany’s position pivotal

Nevertheless with allegations of US attempts to bug the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel surfacing today, the impact of the Prism scandal on the data protection debate could prove significant.

The position of Germany in the tussle between the UK and France will be pivotal, with Europe’s largest economy remaining ambiguous on the proposed data protection regulation.

There is widespread support for the Commission’s proposed regulation amongst private sector German companies, whilst the public sector – keen to protect its federal level powers – is less keen.

Lee-Makiyama told EurActiv that the impact of the data protection regulation on European trade would be significant and had not been properly accounted for by the Commission.

“I did a study based on the Commission’s own figures complemented by some numbers from the UK to see what this would entail, and found that the result would be a GDP drop by at least 0.3 %, because if you cut off data you increase the cost to the EU manufacturing and services industry,” he said.

Timeline: 
  • 24-25 Oct.: Summit of Heads of State and Government to consider digital agenda in Brussels
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