This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article can be accessed here.

Published: March 2024

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Jacques Delors was one of the EU's most devoted craftsman. President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, he notably estimated in 1988 that by 1998, "80% of the legislation [in Europe] related to economics, maybe also to taxes and social affairs, [would] be of [EU] origin."

This statistic has since been debunked by several studies, which show a more accurate percentage would differ across countries and average between 10% and 35%. The impact of European-level policy and regulatory work on any given field may not be easily quantifiable; however, it is undeniable when one looks at the evolution of privacy and personal data governance across the last decade.

And the EU is about to get a new impulse for action.

EU apparatus overhaul

Every five years, the EU apparatus is overhauled. Approximately 200 million voters will be called to elect European parliamentarians, though turnout ranges between 40-50% with large variation across members states. The electoral result leads the European Council to establish its priorities and the European Commission to unveil its policy agenda for the next term and roll out new legislative proposals by early 2025.

In many member states, elections tend to translate into predominantly pro-European versus euro-skeptic dynamics. This dynamic will be reflected even more acutely this year as the rise of extremism across many countries is expected to draw a more radical representation in the European Parliament.

The seven European political groups that coalesce political affiliation across member states have already established their high-level agendas, while many of their corresponding national parties are finalizing their candidate lists. The European People's Party, Socialists and Democrats, Renew Europe, and the Greens — which collectively gather most representation — are socializing their draft manifestos. They are all in line with party expectations, though some go beyond their traditional positioning:

  • Conservatives confirm their willingness to capture far-right leaning voters and argue for the transfer of EU competences back to member states to support national sovereignty.
  • Socialists suggest a reform of the EU's architecture, including to facilitate enlargement and focus on a made-in-Europe strategy for European industry.
  • Liberals stick to their traditionally strong technology-oriented program, calling for more support for innovation and the digital transition.
  • Greens advocate for a Digital Fairness Act against intrusive online advertising, and for nondiscrimination and data protection laws to be strengthened and enforced in light of artificial intelligence.

Key dates:

  • 22-25 April: Last plenary session of the European Parliament.
  • 6-9 June: European elections.
  • June: Newly elected members of European Parliament form political groups and a majority coalition.
  • 1 July: Hungary takes the rotating EU Council presidency.
  • 16-19 July: Constitutive session of the European Parliament, with election of the president and bureau.
  • 22-25 July: Committees hold their constitutive meetings to elect respective chairs and vice chairs.
  • August: Recess.
  • 16-19 Sept.: Plenary session; Parliament elects the Commission president.
  • October: Parliament holds hearings and approves the entire College of Commissioners.
  • 1 Nov.: The new Commission takes office. This process was delayed by a month in 2019.
  • 1 Dec. The Council president takes office.
  • 1 Jan. 2025 Poland takes the rotating EU Council presidency.

At the European Parliament, elections will start at the top and cascade through the entire organization. The Parliament's president will be elected by their peers, alongside vice presidents, committee and delegation chairs, and vice chairs. The next step will be the somewhat obscure trading for the attribution of files and rapporteurships. In total, 720 MEPs will be elected, up from 705 in the current term.

New leadership, not so clean slate

At the start of the year, it was estimated that more than 150 policy files were still pending in this term, although not all are legislative. On any given file, the lead rapporteur collaborates with anywhere from five to 20 fellow MEPs on average. The election will shuffle this distribution to some extent, as the turnover rate of outgoing versus incoming MEPs is typically around 55-60%. This means an ongoing legislative file may be led by some of the same MEPs, but it may also be led by different MEPs if the initial ones were not reelected or chose not to run.

Among the pending files is the procedural reform of the General Data Protection Regulation's cross-border enforcement. In this case, the lead committee approved Parliament's draft position, enshrining it as the Parliament's position for trilogue negotiations to come, regardless of who the rapporteur is after the elections.

The scenario will be different for files that are still in discussion and have not yet had progress recorded by a vote in committee or plenary. One example is the draft AI Liability Directive, which has barely been debated by policymakers since its October 2022 proposal by the European Commission. Whatever progress may have been made on the draft text, in absence of a vote the next Parliament can choose to go back to the drawing board or pick up discussions where the previous term left off. In very rare occasions, the European Commission can also choose to pull back a proposal that would have gone in limbo. Rumor has it, this is likely the fate of the 2017 draft e-privacy regulation.

As a result of the elections, the European Council and Commission will both get a change in leadership. The Council President, currently Charles Michel of Belgium, will be elected by peers and take office on 1 Dec. Once up and running, the institution will define the EU's overall political direction and priorities. Member states will propose a new Commission president and negotiate the composition of the College, both subject to Parliament's approval. Portfolios will be attributed, respecting the balance between political party, gender, geographical representation and member state weight.

Current Commission President Ursula von der Leyen received underwhelming support from her party to run for a second term. Should she be reelected in her role, she would likely carry over priorities such as the European Green Deal and the digital economy agenda.

The new Commissioners College would be expected to take office 1 Nov., though a slight delay is possible as was the case five years ago. At that point, all eyes will be on them as they start rolling out their strategic and legislative agenda for the next five years. While some of it will be unpredictable, we already know of a few things privacy professionals should expect during the next term. More on that in a follow-up article soon.

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