Greetings from London!
Last Friday, 31 Jan., was a momentous day in British and European history. At the stroke of midnight Central European Time, 11 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, the United Kingdom left the European Union after 47 years in "the club." In London, the sound of Big Ben rang to herald the moment, although an audio recording was used as the bell itself is currently out of action for maintenance purposes.
So, what did Brexit feel like? I sat at home and watched the news coverage on the BBC. It felt rather strange. It was as if everything and nothing had changed simultaneously. In London, a group of "Leave" supporters had gathered in Parliament Square to mark the fulfillment of their dream to be out of the EU. At home in semi-rural Kent, 50 kilometers southeast of London, there was just eerie silence. No fireworks, no car horns, no parties. A moment of calm ahead of the political storms to come, perhaps?
Although the U.K. is no longer in the EU, many things remain the same for now. EU rules will still apply in the U.K. until 31 Dec., when the transition period set out in the Withdrawal Agreement will end, unless an extension is agreed on by July. What is immediately different is that the U.K. no longer has an official presence in the EU institutions, including the European Parliament and Council of the European Union. Therefore, the U.K. will have no seat at the table as policy proposals emerge in Brussels, such as on trustworthy AI or even a reboot of the proposed ePrivacy Regulation.
The U.K. Representation to the EU, which handled U.K. business in Brussels, has been recast as the U.K. Mission to the EU Brussels. This change of status means that influence will need to be brought to bear outside of the EU institutions, in a similar way to how missions from the U.S. and other "third countries" operate in Brussels. The lowering of the EU flag outside of UKMis and the U.K. flag outside of EU buildings symbolized the profound change.
Now that the transition period has commenced, the EU and U.K. can seek agreement on a range of policy issues, such as trade, fishing and transport, so that the future political relationship can be settled. Privacy pros should keep a close eye on data protection adequacy negotiations that seek to preserve the free flow of data from the EU to U.K. following the transition period.
To conclude an adequacy decision over the next 11 months, progress will need to be made at an unprecedented pace. However, the European Commission’s Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom published slides 10 Jan. that contained a road map to reach an agreement by the end of the year, so presumably the European Commission sees the target as achievable.
Civil society may well raise concerns about aspects of U.K. data protection, which they consider to not provide "essentially equivalent" protection for EU data subjects — for example, in the national security context. However, the decision to grant adequacy ultimately lies with the commission and council (the member states). They will be looking at the outcome of the European Data Protection Board opinion on U.K. adequacy and seek to address concerns raised. However, if the commission and council consider it is in their best interest to preserve data flows, with assurance that appropriate protections are in place, then maybe the deal can be done. Whatever happens, the next 11 months are bound to be a roller coaster ride.
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