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EU elections unpacked: What next for Europe’s digital future?

“As Europe charts its course to a digitally empowered future, the regulatory landscape forms both a beacon of opportunity and a challenge for businesses navigating this journey. Rapid technological advancements coupled with legislative complexity will see the 2024 elections serving as a pivotal moment in shaping the EU’s future. As enforcement and consumer protection in the digital space move higher up the agenda, ensuring compliance will be more critical than ever for businesses.”

Dr. Lutz Riede, Partner

In our ‘EU elections unpacked’ series of briefings, we have already looked at the future of the Green Deal, as well as examining the impact of the EP elections on the financial services sector. Here we delve into the data and tech space. Analysis of other sectors will follow.

Since taking office in 2019, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has prioritised shaping Europe's digital future. The digital transformation, driven by innovation and accelerated by COVID-19, has underscored the importance of preparing Europe for a more digitised reality. 

Over the past five years, Europe made significant legislative strides, aiming to set global regulatory standards in key areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, semiconductors and the regulation of large digital platforms. 

Following this intense period, the focus now shifts to implementation. New digital governance mechanisms, such as the European Centre for Regulatory Transparency and the recently established Artificial Intelligence Office, need to be properly staffed and find their operational rhythm. Companies must navigate compliance across multiple legal texts and anticipate upcoming secondary legislation that will put these laws into practice. 

The interplay between different regulatory regimes and their combined impact on industry is yet to be fully realised. Preparedness will vary significantly across companies. With flagship initiatives of this European Commission now in place, what can we expect moving forward?

Data and technology milestones: reflections on the 2019-2024 mandate

The 2019-2024 European mandate has been marked by an extremely intensive period of policy and legislation. While this ambitious agenda of the Commission was expected, the sheer scale and rapid adoption of the legislative programme remains unprecedented.

Several bold initiatives were introduced early in the mandate and have now all been adopted, including the Artificial Intelligence Act, the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the Digital Services Act (DSA), the Data Act and the Cyber Resilience Act, among others. These policies were designed to position the EU as a digital powerhouse, capable not only of regulating the digital economy but also of fostering its economic growth. The goal was to compete with other major jurisdictions like China and the US by promoting a model based on open competition, a level playing field and technological advancement rooted in ethical and rules-based governance. It was no coincidence that Margrethe Vestager was entrusted with this formidable task, overseeing a supercharged portfolio and serving as Executive Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age and Competition.

European Commission President von der Leyen started her mandate with a strong focus on online platform regulation, highlighted by the publicationof the Digital Services Package, which includes the DSA and DMA. These regulations, now in force, aim to create a safer digital space by protecting consumers’ fundamental rights and ensuring a level playing field in both the European Single Market and globally. Attention is now firmly on enforcement, with the Commission intensifying its activities, launching in-depth investigations and frequently requesting information from companies. While implementing legislation, guidelines and technical standards are still being developed, enforcement at the national level remains in its early stages. The evolving focus presents new challenges for platforms, especially those at heightened risk of disseminating misinformation or requiring dedicated content moderation mechanisms, especially in the 2024 election supercycle context.

The Commission is also taking decisive steps to ensure that data delivers societal, environmental and economic benefits, advocating for its broad availability. This commitment is reflected in multiple initiatives, including the Data Act, the Data Governance Act, the recently agreed European Health Data Space and the ongoing negotiations for open finance. Key to unlocking this potential is the EU-wide digital identity framework, which is set to be fully implemented by 2026.However, the picture regarding the free flow of data is more complex. While the 2023 EU-US Data Privacy Framework marked a significant milestone, ensuring data flows to other jurisdictions, such as China, remains challenging. The call for greater data sovereignty and localisation continues to gain support, particularly as the EU emphasises developing homegrown solutions and technologies in areas like payments and cloud services.

The European Commission is also evaluating GDPR implementation, gathering feedback to determine whether further measures are needed for effective enforcement, especially considering the recent proposal on the GDPR procedural rules. Additionally, discussions on ePrivacy, which stalled during this mandate, are expected to resume.

On the issue of connectivity, the Commission rolled out a plan to achieve gigabit connectivity by 2030 and deliver high-speed internet access to all Europeans by 2025. A deeper review of the telecoms sector is anticipated, including debates on whether major digital players using EU telecom infrastructure should contribute to network rollout costs. The roaming regulation extension until 2032 and further discussions on intra-EU call fees will also be on the agenda. 

Cybersecurity and law enforcement remain high priorities, with companies facing stricter incident-reporting and risk management obligations. Increased cooperation among countries to combat online threats is expected, as the EU continues to build cyber capacity and elevate cybersecurity standards for digital products. 

The EU has also agreed on the world's first AI regulatory framework, setting clear requirements for all actors in the AI value chain, particularly developers and deployers. The focus now shifts to implementation, with the newly established AI Office drafting the necessary legislation and guidelines to provide the legal certainty that industry players seek. Future efforts will also emphasise financing for AI developers and revisiting liability rules, alongside supporting startups in training their AI models through funding programmes like the European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking.

What remains to be done? Considerations for the 2024-2029 mandate

The European Commission is now prioritising enforcementsignalling a commitment to implementing and ensuring compliance with existing EU legislation. This strategic shift involves a slowdown in introducing new legislative proposals, focusing instead on consolidating and enforcing laws that have been passed during the current mandate. In response, industry stakeholders have advocated for a regulatory break or 'deregulation' period. This shift underscores a concerted effort to streamline regulatory frameworks and enhance accountability, fostering a more stable and predictable business environment conducive to sustainable growth and EU competitiveness.

Accompanying this shift in focus, investment and infrastructure are high on the agenda for these elections. The European Commission is poised to prioritise financing for the twin transition, concentrating heavily on investments in key sectors. Notably, semiconductor manufacturing and the sustainability and resilience of supply chains are considered vital for economic growth. This focus on investment aims to strengthen the EU’s competitiveness, while carrying significant geopolitical implications, potentially strengthening the EU’s position on the global stage.

New priorities, portfolios and governance

The upcoming mandate is expected to bring changes in key positions and structure to better address emerging needs. The anticipated departure of Margrethe Vestager as Executive Vice-President for the Digital Age and Thierry Breton's potential shift towards an enhanced role focused on Green Competitiveness leaves an opportunity for a new technology champion in the College of Commissioners. It is too early to predict whether dedicated digital portfolios, such as a Commissioner for data will be created to ensure coherent application of the different data laws passed in recent years. Another possibility is the creation of a dedicated portfolio on enforcement, reflecting the Commission's proactive stance towards strengthening its regulatory oversight and compliance mechanisms. This move would align with the growing debate on the need for an EU supranational enforcer for digital regulation to bypass the fragmented and sometimes overlapping competences currently split between the EU, national levels and different bodies.

There is also an increasing focus on consumer protection in the digital sphere. In its 2020 New Consumer Agenda, the European Commission committed to assessing the relevance of EU consumer legislation to protect consumers online. Currently, the Commission is conducting a broad evaluation of consumer protection rules in the digital environment through its ‘Fitness Check of EU consumer law.’ The results of this consultation, expected closer to the elections, may reveal the Commission's future plans. Issues such as dark patters, addictive design and influencer marketing are likely to be addressed, remaining hot topics in the digital consumer protection discourse.

Another emerging theme is the role of competition policy concerning Artificial Intelligence, particularly generative AI and virtual worlds. The Commission’s Directorate General for Competition has been gathering input on these issues, following the lead of several national competition authorities including the UK. A call for feedback has been prepared, and a dedicated workshop is scheduled for late June. The outcomes of this exercise may well influence the priorities of the next European Commission.

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