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Jan Philipp Albrecht, scourge of data-slurpers everywhere, and revered as the European Parliament’s “Mr. Privacy” is moving on to pastures new. 

It was announced earlier this month that he would take up the post of State Minister for Energy, Agriculture, Environment and Digitization in Schleswig-Holstein, a prominent German region. The news is something of a surprise, given that Albrecht has made his name championing digital rights and has not noticeably been involved with agricultural matters.

The 35 year old has been a member of the Greens since 1999 and studied law in Bremen, Brussels and Berlin, and graduated in information and communications technology law from the Universities of Hanover and Oslo. When he was elected to the European Parliament for the first time, in 2009, Albrecht was the youngest German MEP.

He was also one of the youngest to be given a responsibility as large as rapporteurship of the General Data Protection Regulation. But given his re-election in 2014 was supported by his party with a historical high nomination result of 97.38 percent, it is perhaps no surprise. His departure from the European Parliament will leave a big gap. As a champion of privacy rights he is unparalleled, but with the GDPR due to enter into force in May, he is ready for a new challenge.

Which begs the question, who will fill his shoes?

In strict parliamentary terms, German Green Romeo Franz will succeed Albrecht as the next on the list after the last round of European Parliament elections in 2014. He will become the first ever Sinti Green MEP. A musician by background, Franz is very involved in defending cultural rights of the Sinti and Roma, and joined the Greens in 2010.

However, despite taking up Albrecht’s seat in Parliament, he is not expected to pick up the Defender of Data Protection mantle, given that it is not his area of expertise. In addition, Albrecht will officially leave the Parliament in September, meaning that Franz will serve only nine months before the next European Parliament elections in May 2019.

As far as roles go, Albrecht is vice chair of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee, substitute member of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection committee, and member of the Special Committee on Terrorism. He is also on the delegations for relations with Israel, and Australia and New Zealand.

Those roles will be parceled out to fellow Green MEPs depending on seniority, areas of expertise and a political machine only those on the inside really understand.

Despite retaining Albrecht’s team — including Senior Advisor Ralf Bendrath, widely regarded as being as impressive as Albrecht himself on data protection — Franz seems unlikely to be the go-to MEP for privacy.

The front-runners

British centre-left MEP Claude Moraes, President of the LIBE committee, has a good track record on data protection. He called for and led inquiry into mass surveillance after the Edward Snowden revelations. However as a British MEP, his days are numbered because of Brexit. 

Former European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding who, together with Albrecht, got the GDPR into law is a good bet. Now an MEP, she still keeps an eye on data protection issues. However as a member of the Trade Committee, she is likely to have her hands (very) full between now and the end of the Parliament.

Fellow European People’s Party MEP Michal Boni is also one to watch. The EPP group has traditionally appeared to favor business interests in the digital sector, even where they come into conflict with fundamental rights. Boni has done a fine job in walking a fine line between the two while keeping his party on side. A LIBE member, he is also in the right place.

One MEP who cannot be accused of favoring diplomacy over conviction is Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld. She too is a member of the LIBE committee and well known for her vocal and unflinching speeches in defense of civil liberties — famously demanding of the European Commission whether the Privacy Shield is “Schremsproof!”

Two to one odds.

But the odds-on favourite has to be German Socialist Birgit Sippel. She took over from Estonian Mariju Lauristin as the European Parliament's special papporteur for the ePrivacy Regulation last year and is working hard to steer it through parliament. Though less high-profile than In’t Veld, Sippel is a safe pair of hands with a very big dossier. The ePrivacy Regulation is shaping up to be GDPR on steroids, so if Sippel can deliver a law that as Albrecht once said “makes everyone equally unhappy,” she’ll be following in his footsteps.

Albrecht will be missed in the Parliament as much for his charm and good humor, as his encyclopedic knowledge of all things data protection. The current crop for MEPs provide some options for a successor, but with elections next year, now might just be the time for a new candidate to run as “The Privacy MEP."

photo credit: lisboncouncil Jan Philipp Albrecht via photopin (license)

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