Data protection rules delayed at EU summit talks

Hollande Merkel May 2012.jpg

This article is part of our special report Digital Summit for Growth.

SPECIAL REPORT / France and Germany responded to escalating rows over espionage by the US by announcing a review of security relations to be completed by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the adoption of a proposed EU data protection regulation was delayed until 2015.

The surprise announcement on the "no spying" agreement was the result of an earlier bilateral meeting between Merkel and Hollande that took place shortly after the pair arrived at the summit, and was then presented to the remaining member states.

The development came in response to a barrage of condemnation following reports of Merkel’s phone being bugged, amplified by further revelations of alleged bugging of leaders, including Italy's Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, by the US National Security Agency.

Attempts to bring forward the implementation of a proposed new data protection regulation (DPR) – strongly pushed by France and the European Commission in advance of the summit – foundered however, with a new commitment to introduce the rules by 2015.

Merkel: 'Words are not enough'

In a briefing following the summit Merkel said that she was not expecting an apology from the US for the fact her phone may have been tapped, but added: “We need to rebuild the basis of trust. Words will not be enough. Change is necessary.”

The agreement between France and Germany to review their espionage relations with the US will be attached as an annex to the summit conclusions, and signed by all 28 member states, who will acknowledge the intention of the two countries to carry out the task.

Merkel said that other member states would be welcome to join the process. Asked what exactly it would involve, the German Chancellor said: “I think that [US, French and German] intelligence services need to come to agreements with each other on yardsticks and norms about how they relate to each other and to their citizens.”

The UK’s David Cameron was apparently not involved in the initiative. A senior EU official said that – given that the UK had not been subject to similar reports of intelligence incursions – that was a natural situation. Reports in the Italian newspaper L'Espresso, published today, allege UK intelligence involvement in attempts to bug the Italian government.

Data protection: from 2014 to 2015

The omission of the UK from the joint Franco-German statement, added to the fact that Cameron left the summit without briefing the press, suggested some tension.

Cameron did achieve a major UK goal in delaying the date of implementation of a new data protection regime, however.

Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee voted on Monday (21 October) 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.

The Parliament, and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, have consistently tied the need for stronger data protection to acknowledge alleged privacy abuses arising from information leaked by former US espionage contractor Edward Snowden.

Early drafts of the European Council conclusions called for the DPR to be completed by “Spring 2014”. That was later changed to “during 2014”, an amendment that was strongly criticised by the Commission.

A high-ranking EU official said before the summit that the European Commission hoped that the wording would change back to “next Spring”, rather than “next year” to give more impetus to the proposal.

>> Read: Data protection: France, UK lead rival camps at summit

The final conclusions have now been amended to read “by 2015’, wording interpreted by France’s President, François Hollande, as signifying the beginning of that year.

Cameron fought hard for delay to data protection

The French President put a positive gloss on the delay, claiming that some countries had been calling for the DPR to be introduced “as soon as possible”. Since such a formulation was meaningless, he said, it was far better to have a firm date than none.

Merkel for her part acknowledged she had supported the delay to the DPR , though she distanced Germany's motivations from those of the UK.

“The UK wanted to delay the DPR because they feel that it may harm the interests of business,” she said after the summit. “Germany had reservations on not moving too quickly to ensure that it can reconcile the existing rights of its citizens,” she explained.

A senior EU official told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity that Cameron had fought hard for the 2015 date, and began the summit negotiations arguing that it would be better to have no deadline at all.

Reduced mobile phone roaming charges was the popular leading act in the European Commission's proposal to harmonise the telecoms sector, which also included controversial attempts to level EU access to the internet and radio spectra.

The proposals, released in September, are intended to kick-start the under-performing European telecoms sector, in comparison to its US and Asian rivals, and incentivise investment in ultra-fast

broadband networks. They will form one of the key issues under discussion at the first EU summit to focus primarily on the digital agenda.

  • 25 Oct.: Summit of Heads of State and Government to continues today in Brussels

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