Tuesday

23rd Jan 2018

Focus

Digital debate will be first test of Tusk's new policy crowbar

  • EU leaders said they were "ready to do what it takes for Europe to go digital". (Photo: Omar Prestwich)

Next week's meeting of telecommunications ministers will be the first test case of Donald Tusk's proposed new working method of EU leaders breaking legislative deadlocks to give Europeans "real solutions to real problems".

In the conclusions of their summit in Brussels on Thursday (19 October), EU leaders have called on their ministers to discuss next Tuesday "how to speed up and prioritise the work" on the digital files.

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  • Latvian prime minister Maris Kucinskis at the EU summit, where he and his 27 colleagues said the digital single market strategy should be implemented by the end of next year (Photo: European Council)

Of the 24 legislative files that are part of the digital single market, six have been adopted so far.

Government leaders have reaffirmed that all the digital plans need to be adopted by the end of 2018.

"Despite considerable progress, work in this area needs to be accelerated in order to meet this deadline," they said.

The leaders called on the EU institutions "to step up the legislative work", and called on the member states "to implement the relevant EU legislation".

It may seem strange that leaders of the member states are calling on their own countries to act.

But the political entreaty from Thursday's conclusions was necessary, as the prime minister in some EU countries do not have the mandate to directly order his or her ministers to do something, one EU source explained to this website.

Another source said that the experts negotiating the legislative files are often most focused on how new rules would affect companies in his or her own country.

"Each and every country has their own interests," the source said, so adding pressure from the summit can motivate the negotiators towards compromises.

The text adopted by the leaders contained a warning for lower level diplomats and ministers: if they, in the Council of the European Union, cannot arrive at compromises, then a file can become a topic at a future EU summit, known in Brussels as the European Council.

"The European Council will at its level address issues that cannot be solved at the level of the Council," it said.

Tusk already scheduled a debate about digital issues "such as e-commerce, copyright, taxation" for the March 2018 summit.

In their text, leaders have revealed some of their preferences for which files should be tackled first.

Deadline for three files

They said negotiations between member states and the European Parliament on three of the digital files should be finished before the end of the year.

The three files are on geo-blocking, audio-visual media services, and parcel delivery.

Geo-blocking refers to the practice of internet services being available, depending on the geographical location of the user.

Most internet users, when they think of geo-blocking, think of not being able to watch the same TV series or films as citizens of other EU member states – like the BBC iPlayer.

But the legislative file under discussion is not as ambitious as EU vice president and commissioner for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, had originally wanted, and deals only with online shopping of physical goods.

In an earlier draft, leaders had said negotiations should finish before the end of 2017 on the free flow of non-personal data, and on the electronic communications code, but in the end the text gave negotiators of these two files until June 2018.

The electronic communications code deals with rules for telecommunication companies.

They also gave the European Commission, in the final version, slightly more time to come up with "a European approach to artificial intelligence" – by early 2018, instead of by January 2018.

The digital single market is a pet peeve for Estonia, the current rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

Last month, EU leaders met in Tallinn for a summit during which the digital future was a main theme. On Thursday, German chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that the debate was "truly interesting".

The declaration for "completing the digital single market strategy in all its elements by the end of 2018" is not new.

Although the understanding of what legislation should be included in the digital single market has changed over time, already in 2010 an EU summit ended with a similar promise.

At the time, EU leaders said that there should be "a fully functioning digital single market by 2015".

"I'm a bit impatient about the digital single market agenda," Luxembourg's prime minister, Xavier Bettel, told the press on Thursday.

But his Dutch colleague warned that the new 'move-a-file-to-summit' mechanism, by which EU leaders should spend more time unblocking legislative files stuck at the ministerial level, may not be the perfect solution - in particular those that are a part of the digital single market strategy.

At his arrival at the summit, Mark Rutte told press that "many files have been stuck at a lower level for a long time".

"These are issues that are often stuck because particular larger member states have very large national interests that are preventing an agreement," he said.

"Were you to pull that up to the level of leaders, then you may be able to bargain some topics against each other," the Dutch leader added.

Later in the evening, he told EUobserver at a press conference that he and his colleagues should be "very selective" about when to trigger the move-a-file-to-summit mechanism.

"You have to be careful, because once the [ministers] find out that things can be solved at the leaders' level, then they won't do anything anymore."

On Friday, the summit will continue with a discussion about how and when to move a legislative file to the summit level.

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'Despite considerable progress, work in this area needs to be accelerated in order to meet this deadline' of finishing the digital single market by the end of 2018, leaked draft conclusions of next week's summit said.

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EU judges have an opportunity to make clear that no member state can decide what the rest of the world reads online, now that Austria's Supreme Court has referred the Glawischnig case to the European Court of Justice.

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