Gabriel breezes through cozy hearing on way to top EU digital job

Mariya Gabriel, a 38-year-old MEP, breezed through a European Parliament hearing on her way to become the next EU digital Commissioner. [European Parliament]

Mariya Gabriel, the 38-year-old Bulgarian MEP tipped to become the new EU digital chief, told MEPs during her approval hearing that she wants to “comply” with the European Commission’s policy priorities.

During a two-and-a-half-hour-long hearing Tuesday (20 June), Gabriel promised to strike compromises on some of the Commission’s most contentious proposals that are currently moving through negotiations, including new EU telecoms rules and a copyright reform bill.

With MEPs’ approval, Gabriel would catapult into a powerful Commissioner role in charge of steering technology bills through talks with the European Parliament and national governments until the term ends in 2019. Some observers suggested her power could be clipped because she will need to defend Commission proposals that she did not help draft.

“A two-year mandate is short,” Gabriel said, adding that she will prioritise wrapping up the Commission’s work on its 16-point digital single market initiative.

She will also be responsible for new legislative proposals that the Commission promised for autumn on cybersecurity and the flow of data between EU countries.

The digital post has been vacant since January, when German Commissioner Günther Oettinger took over the EU budget portfolio. Former Bulgaria Commissioner left the Commission in December, half-way through the term, for a job at the World Bank. Since then, Bulgaria has had no top representative in the Commission.

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The tech industry is relieved that Bulgaria’s nominee for Commissioner will oversee digital policies, filling a gap left open for four months after Günther Oettinger transferred to the budget post.

Gabriel faced a scattering of technical questions on encryption and territorial TV licensing. But many tech insiders say she is a shoo-in because MEPs know her and are eager to approve a colleague to a Commissioner post.

The Parliament will vote on Gabriel’s candidacy for the job next month.

Before the hearing started, Gabriel greeted several of her colleagues. She even stopped to take selfies. Some MEPs from her centre-right EPP group congratulated Gabriel for her responses during the hearing.

Gabriel responded with flattering words for MEPs, reassuring them that she would not forget the European Parliament, which she called a “laboratory of ideas”.

There were no questions about recent reports in Bulgarian media that revealed that Gabriel pays a sup-market price for an apartment in Sofia.

An aide to Gabriel said she would not speak to journalists until after the two Parliament committees in charge of the hearing have signed off on her candidacy.

For the most part, Gabriel responded to questions by explaining the importance of the Commission’s actions—or inaction. When Estonian Liberal MEP Kaja Kallas asked where she stands on regulating encryption technology, Gabriel said, “legal access can only take place within very strict conditions.”

“Only where it concerns reasons of national security of the highest rank,” she added.

“No clear commitment unfortunately,” Kallas tweeted afterwards.

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Gabriel stuck to the Commission line when asked about how the EU should regulate online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. The Commission announced last month that it will propose rules affecting business arrangements between platforms and other companies later this year.

“Not all big players are necessarily evil,” she said.

Gabriel stood by the Commission’s decision so far not to make changes to the eCommerce directive, a set of rules that limit online platforms’ liability for users’ illegal posts. Platforms should follow a set of Commission-brokered non-binding guidelines to remove hate speech and any other illegal content, she said.

“Within our dialogue with the platforms, there’s more space for voluntary measures,” Gabriel responded to one question.

Asked another time about platforms where users post copyright infringements, she said the companies have to be “responsible.”

The brief response touched on a raging fight over whether the Commission should propose hard law to force internet companies to take down illegal hate speech or any posts containing copyright infringement.

On other questions about telecoms, fake news and data protection, the Bulgarian MEP was in step with the Commission’s stance. She praised a Commission proposal to create more EU rules on member states’ radio spectrum auctions, calling it a boon for fast internet connections.

“5G is our chance to once again be a driver for development for everyone,” she said, referencing next generation mobile networks.

Her responses must have reassured high-ranking officials in DG Connect, the Commission’s technology policy department.

“I would like to thank all the general directors at the respective DGs and everybody else who put so much effort into my preparing for today’s hearing,” Gabriel said at the end of her hearing.

Others said they walked away from the hearing knowing little about where Gabriel stands on policy issues.

German Pirate MEP Julia Reda found Gabriel’s answers to be too cautious.

“She did not give her own opinions, she gave the Commission opinion,” Reda told EURACTIV.

Still, Reda said it was clear that Gabriel knew the technical details she was asked about and made no gaffes.

During his 2014 hearing for the digital job, Oettinger called celebrities “stupid” for keeping naked photos of themselves in clouds that could be hacked.

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