EU needs to focus on legislation in the digital sphere, MEP Angelika Niebler says

Member of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy Angelika Niebler. [Melanie Wenger/European Parliament]

This article is part of our special report EU citizens at a legal crossroad.

The EU has proven to be successful in legislating in the digital age but it needs to keep up the work to avoid being left behind, because “the digital revolution has been moving faster than legislation”, MEP Angelika Niebler (EPP, Germany) told EURACTIV in a written interview.

Angelika Niebler is a member of the European Parliament for the European People’s Party and sits on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE).

What can the EU do to tackle cross-border legal issues citizens are facing?

The EU can keep up its efforts to tear down legal barriers between the member states. The situation in this regard has been constantly improving over the past years. Nowadays, with the possibilities offered by the digitalisation of our everyday lives, these barriers are bound to fall even faster. Understanding those possibilities should be the EU’s top priority.

What are the main pieces of legislation missing? Is harmonisation a utopia? Should we ensure coordination at EU level instead?

Digitalisation already has and is going to have a huge impact on all parts of society. Big themes for the future will concern Europe’s digital sovereignty, access to data, artificial intelligence and much more – the list is long and getting longer by the day.

The legislation is dragging behind the rapid developments all around us and we need to focus more on legislation in the digital sphere. Harmonisation of our rules, especially on the internal market, is strengthening efficiency and this is what we need in this fast-paced world. However, I think there are some fields where the member states should be free to shape legislation according to their needs. In those fields, coordination is key. Therefore, it is not the question of instead but rather of the right balance.

Some of this legislation is often hard to agree due to national sensitivities. How to tackle this issue?

There is no way around this issue – this is Europe. Our slogan is “United in diversity”. Therefore, I think we should always be open to those national sensitivities. But in some cases, like foreign policy where we should be able to react quickly, I am in favour of a more flexible approach. In the end, I believe that unanimity on foreign policy decisions is not conducive to the EU’s aspiration of being a global player. In general, however, our strength clearly lies in our ability to speak with a unified voice on the world stage.

As MEP you have been involved in legislative procedures tackling the consequences of the digital revolution, are we behind on this? How can technology help to address these legal uncertainties across Europe?

It’s not a secret that the digital revolution has been moving faster than legislative procedures. But when I look at the current initiatives in the European Parliament I see that we are rapidly catching up: Artificial intelligence, e-privacy, smart grids etc. are dominating the discussions. Sometimes a slower pace can also be an asset. Sometimes you can only see where intervention is needed when a concept was tested and prevailed. I think with the GDPR and the Cybersecurity Act we have shown that EU legislation for the digital world can be a success.

One of the main pieces of legislation pending regarding legal issues affecting citizens is the recognition of protection for vulnerable adults. Do you see room for an impulse to this matter?

To date, the Hague Convention on the International Protection of Adults has been ratified by only 10 EU member states and signed by an additional 7. We need to urge member states to sign and ratify the convention in order to diminish legal uncertainties, especially in a cross-border-context. The new European Commission should take the initiative on this. There are sound arguments: a  ‘Cost of  Non-Europe‘ Report estimated that costs linked with this legal uncertainty – and thus legal fees arising in cross-border transactions  –  and related “emotional” costs,  amount to  €11 million per year.

Regarding the fight against money laundry, what can the EU do better and how can it use the support of legal and bank professionals in addressing this pressing issue?

Since 1990, we have revised the Anti-Money-Laundering-Directive five times, always improving it a bit further. By January 2020 member states will have to transpose the fifth revision of the directive into national law. So, I believe the EU is already quite active but of course, we can always do better. I sometimes feel – and this is also directed at legal professionals and financial experts – that legislation is solely seen as a burden from Brussels. I agree that we have to reduce bureaucracy but we also need to explain that legislation – for example on money laundering – was actually introduced to make society better and fight crime. I wish this perspective was more acknowledged.

Do you consider it necessary to create anti-money laundering authority in the EU? Or do we need more competences and a single rule-book?

I do not think we need yet another EU agency. Through cooperation and integration, not the least through the banking union we are getting better and better at combating money laundering.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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