No better year for the EU’s weak chain links

European Parliament President Martin Schulz (in the forefront) signs Erasmus+ into law. The revamped education programme will enable more than four million people to study abroad over the next seven years. (EP Audiovisual Services, 07-01-2014).

European Parliament President Martin Schulz (in the forefront) signs Erasmus+ into law. The revamped education programme will enable more than four million people to study abroad over the next seven years. (EP Audiovisual Services, 07-01-2014).

The European Parliament issued a Press release this week with the ambitious target to inform us all about what is bound to change in our lives this year, resulting from the application of EU laws. It mentions the mercury ban in thermometers and some new rules in recycling of electrical and electronic equipment, the legislation on consumer protection and intellectual property, the environmental protection as well as the new laws expected to shape the EU’s banking union and others to ensure the free movement of workers. There is even an ambiguous reference to better data protection this year. Let’s take one thing at a time.

No data protection

This assortment of new rules contains legislation that has already being agreed and voted for and its application is a matter of gradual enforcement, along with law proposals which are still in the phase of discussions – negotiations in the Union’s trilateral system of legislative procedures (Parliament, Council and Commission). In the first category come some minor changes in recycling, consumer and environment protection and intellectual property.

As an example, the Press release states the case of intellectual property rights which, “will be better protected (this year) by extending the number of possible infringement customs officials can check for at the border…”. The same is true for legislation “to ensure (that) electrical and electronic equipment is recycled better enters into force in February…”. Consumers will also benefit from new rules introducing “better information on their food, including nutrition information on processed foods, origin labelling of unprocessed meat…”.

Only trivial issues

However all that looks trivial compared with the two issues for which there is still no clear direction that the Union wants to take, namely the personal data protection and banking union. The text of the Press release reads “In 2014 there will also be new legislation on how to deal with failing banks and investment firms…In addition there will be new rules…on data protection to ensure our personal information online is better protected”. Unfortunately, on both those accounts the EU stands bewildered and undecided.

Concerning the personal data protection issue, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda speaking at the IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress in Brussels on 11 December last year said that, “Data isn’t a four-letter word”. She explained that, “data protection rules are really just the start. They are only part of our response to the Snowden revelations. Because, let’s be honest: spying has been going on for some time…So let’s not be naïve. However well drafted and carefully negotiated, the risk of breaking EU law will not deter your average hacker or spy. When your house is broken into – you don’t need a lawyer, you need a lock. That response must involve many elements beyond data protection”.

In reality the EU is still looking for this ‘lock’. The 28 EU countries are deeply divided over the kind of protection personal data should enjoy in Europe, in contrast to the Americans who are only interested in the unobstructed flow of data all over the world. At least Britain and some other EU countries are actively supporting the US position, that free flow is the major target when it comes to protecting personal data of commercial character. According to the Anglo-Americans everything is for sale.

Others in the EU go to the opposite direction and want to abolish the “Safe Harbour agreement”, dating from the year 2000 between EU/US, which currently regulates the use of European data by American companies, or at least pretends to. On top of that, the EU and the US are at odds on the possibility that the data protection subject will be included or not in the currently under negotiation Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In short, this huge issue is far from being settled.

Which Banking Union?

Last but not least, the Banking Union, having been partly agreed upon, is far from introducing ground-breaking changes in the way failing banks are dealt with. For the next four to five years the national governments and consequently taxpayers will be responsible to pay for the cost of winding down failing banks in their territory. No EU co-responsibility or close partnership is to be introduced this year in this burning matter. ‘Everyone for himself’, will continue to be the motto governing the Banking Union. No wonder then if voters in peripheral and weaker countries remember that when voting, if at all, in the European elections next May.

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