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The Privacy Advisor | What Does the New European Commission Mean for Privacy? Related reading: Notes from the IAPP Europe, 23 Sept. 2022




In what the Financial Times is calling “one of the biggest overhauls of the EU executive in more than a decade,” Jean-Claude Juncker, incoming president of the European Commission, has announced his nominations for a suite of new commissioners and called for "conclusion of negotiations on the reform of Europe’s data protection rules" and the review of the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor agreement in six months' time.

As a refresher, the European Commission is one of three main legislative bodies in the EU, with a representative from each of the 28 EU member states. Juncker was made president by vote of the Council of the EU and then was charged with finding a role for each of the 27 other commissioners. The European Parliament approved Juncker and will have to approve of his organization of the commissioners, a process that begins now. Finally, the Council of the EU instates the new Commission in full once the Parliament has put their stamp of approval on it.

This process happens every five years.

As you might expect, individual countries jockey for high-profile roles inside the commission, and much will be read into the announcement. The full list of nominations can be found here.

One large departure under Juncker is his creation of a sort of hierarchy within the commission. Rather than 27 commissioners, there are now two “high vice presidents,” five vice presidents and then 20 commissioners. These vice presidents will head up “project teams,” so that commissioners with roles that overlap or intersect will work together more.

Those in the privacy world will want to pay particular attention, for example, to the “Digital Single Market” project team, headed up by VP Andrus Ansip of Estonia. As Juncker says in his announcement, “To make better use of the opportunities offered by digital technologies, national silos in telecoms regulation, in copyright and data protection legislation … laws need to be broken down.”

In his mission letter to Ansip, Juncker writes that Ansip should "oversee, during the first six months of the mandate, the conclusion of negotiations on the reform of Europe’s data protection rules as well as the review of the Safe Harbour arrangement with the U.S."

Further, Ansip “will notably be tasked with presenting ambitious legislative steps towards a connected digital single market” and will ride herd over the commissioners for Digital Economy and Society; Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs; Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility; Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality; Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs; Regional Policy, and Agriculture and Rural Development.

That’s a lot of sway for the man tasked with overseeing the installation of the data protection regulation. But Ansip is battle-tested. As prime minister of Estonia, he led the country for nine years as chairman of the liberal Estonian Reform Party, until he resigned in March, at which point he was the EU’s longest-serving prime minister.

He is a chemist by education and was a communist party official in the Soviet Union, and he is best known in Europe for his introduction of austerity measures in Estonia following the financial collapse of 2008-2009. He slashed government, installed a flat 21-percent income tax and cut the salaries of many government officials. He was given wide credit for Estonia’s relatively quick bounce-back, though growth has slowed considerably in the past year and he came under political pressure for it.

It is also worth noting that German Günther Oettinger has been named commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. Clearly, the Germans have a big stick in the EU economy and this could be an indication that this role is seen as a vital one. In Oettinger’s mission letter, Juncker spells out his task as “Supporting the Vice-President for the Digital Single Market and the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality in finalising the negotiations on an ambitious Data Protection Regulation in 2015. On the basis of the outcome of this legislative process, you should prepare a reform of the e-Privacy Directive, liaising closely with the Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, with the support of the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.”

Also amongst his tasks are making Europe a leader in cybersecurity, increasing the confidentiality of communications; ensuring the openness of the Internet, and “ensuring that promising new developments such as the cloud, the Internet of Things and big data can thrive in Europe and that citizens, innovative web entrepreneurs and other businesses can take full advantage of their potential.”

Oettinger is an experienced commissioner. He is already serving in the European Commission as commissioner for energy, a role he took on in February of 2010. It’s unclear whether he will see the new role heading up the digital economy as a favor or a slight. In a recent interview with Euractiv he noted, “The best would be a field that suits Germany and that suits me, something with a more economic focus, like economy, energy, industry, trade or internal market.”

As for the commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, that is Vĕra Jourová, the commissioner from the Czech Republic, who is currently serving as the Czech minister of regional development (she was deputy minister from 2003-2006) and who participated a great deal in the implementation of the Cohesion policy of the EU. She is a lawyer specializing in “the assessment and evaluation of managing authorities’ and intermediate bodies’ implementation systems,” having worked with the European Commission and the United Nations Development Program before becoming a politician.

She also prides herself on her integrity. In her nomination for the commission, she makes note that in her role of ministering funds and subsidies from Brussels to the Czech Republic, “she faced pressure from politicians, godfathers and incompetent and possibly corrupt bureaucracy while at the ministry. She refused to play a foul game and received a ‘well-deserved’ punishment. After false accusation of accepting a bribe, she ended up in detention for a month in the autumn of 2006 due to the Budisov case.”

She was later cleared of all charges and awarded financial damages.

Finally, there is Frans Timmermans, of the Netherlands, who will serve as first vice president and high representative of the union for better regulation, inter-institutional relations, the rule of law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. In his mission letter, he is particularly tasked with guiding Jourová’s work, along with “deepening the commission’s relations with the other institutions and national parliaments,” which will surely include negotiations on the data protection regulation.

Timmermans will effectively be Juncker’s right-hand man, “and all commissioners will liaise closely with you when it concerns the implementation of our better regulation agenda.”

Currently, Timmermans is minister of foreign affairs for the Dutch, holding the role since November of 2012. He is a longtime diplomat, getting his start in 1990 in the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Moscow and serving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After a stint in the Dutch Parliament, he was then named state secretary for foreign affairs in 2006 and was in that role when the Treaty of Lisbon was signed, before returning to Parliament and then taking on his current role. He is reportedly fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, which certainly can’t hurt as he navigates and creates coalitions among the 28 member states and potentially helps to usher in the likes of Bulgaria and Romania.

How will these four compare in their attitudes toward the data protection regulation with the likes of Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes? Expect the European Parliament to ask many questions along those lines as they go through the nomination process.

1 Comment

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  • comment Cristos • Sep 12, 2014
    Great article that succintly explains the new hierarchy structure within the European Commission and the roles of the officials that will oversee the data protection regulation, including issues of the European digital agenda. It remains to be seen how the upcoming roles of the high vice-presidents and vice-presidents work in practice, a challenge for those in the lobbying sector, undoubtely!