Trends to Watch 2019: EU Digital Policy Up in the Air

Posted on 7th January 2019

2019 will be a year of change, impacting technology companies on different levels. How the first half pans out will have a strong impact on the EU’s digital policy for the coming five years in a landscape full of both challenges and opportunities. This year will mainly be shaped by the European elections in May, the shift towards “traditional” policy areas through a digital angle, and Brexit.

With less than ninety days before the UK leaves the EU, policy-makers are preparing for a “no-deal” scenario to address network securities, the free flow of data, professional recognition and intellectual property, taking their attention away from “business-as-usual” digital files.

Key files still in limbo

Given the ambivalent electoral future of MEPs, including Rapporteurs of key files such as Axel Voss on the Copyright Directive, stakeholders will pressure the European institutions to conclude trilogue negotiations on outstanding digital files in the first three months of 2019. The alternative – waiting for the new Parliament and Commission – would result in months of delay. And changing negotiators mid-way through the process has not done EU legislation many favours in the past.

Other outstanding digital and tech files include reports on Terrorist Content Online, Connecting Europe Facility, the EU Space Programme, e-Evidence, Platform-to-Business, Dual-Use of Technology, and the controversial ePrivacy Regulation.

Technology companies and other interested stakeholders looking for a swift conclusion of pivotal files should step up efforts to urge the institutions to come to an agreement by March at the latest. Conversely, the short timeframe may also favour stakeholders less keen for certain files to be concluded. The ePrivacy Regulation is a potent example. The upcoming Romanian Presidency has already expressed reluctance regarding rushing the file through, which means that it may either remain on the agenda for the Finnish Presidency in the second half of 2019 and possibly beyond or be sent back to the Commission for redrafting altogether.

Successfully closed files under the current 2014-2019 digital programme include the General Data Protection Regulation, the Free Flow of Non-Personal Data Regulation, Security of Network and Information Systems (NIS) Directive, the Electronic Communications Code, and, most recently, the Cybersecurity Act.

Campaign season                                                                                 

The outcome of European Parliament elections will shape the agenda and the ability of EU institutions to come to agreements for the next five-year term. More than 700 MEPs and their political staff will rise for election campaigning in the middle of April. This means that tech companies will be spotting early on the future leaders in digital policy and drawing up engagement strategies to create champions and placate critics. Following the election results, much of the summer will be getting to grips with the new European Commission, whose appointment will follow in the autumn.

While we have to wait for 26 May for the results, we already know a number of key MEPs, such as Dutch politician Marietje Schaake, the Rapporteur for the EU’s Digital Trade Strategy, Dual-Use Technologies, and Human Rights and Technology reports, will not be running. It is also widely expected that populist politicians will gain even more ground than in the 2014 elections. With the loss of British MEPs, the shrinking of the centre-right EPP group, and the increasing prominence of far-left-wing and far-right forces, the next European Parliament is also likely to adopt a more protectionist approach and to support stronger rules for the tech industry, particularly regarding trade, data protection, and competition rules.

The year of the digital EU

An increased focus on digital under the 2019-2024 Commission’s work programme will permeate the Union’s work on policy issues not traditionally associated with technology. Usually reserved for DG CONNECT and to an extent DG COMPETITION, digital policy will inform and shape different Directorates-General working on policy areas as diverse as consumer protection, mobility and transport, or trade. This opens up a realm of exciting possibilities for technology companies. For example, the Romanian Presidency will be prioritising eHealth, an important vertical for cloud companies. We will be also seeing many more interesting synergies emerge as the division between “traditional” and digital policy becomes more fluid.

Technology companies are also likely to come under increased scrutiny by policy-makers. The Finnish Presidency, taking over the reins in the Council in the second half of 2019, has already announced that it will be pushing for a reflection at the European level on the power of big tech, as well as the impact of new technologies on human rights. Technology companies will need to strengthen their engagement with policy-makers to demonstrate how they are tackling emerging challenges, such as illegal and terrorist content online, data privacy, digital competition, e-commerce and liability.

Author: Simona Lipstaite, International Public Policy Manager, Access Partnership

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