High expectations for the new Austrian EU Council presidency

Yesterday, 1 July 2018, marked the commencement of the Austrian Presidency of the European Council. The Austrian Government will now hold the Presidency for the next six months, until the end of 2018.

The Austrian presidency comes at a critical time for the EU’s digital agenda, with the European Commission making clear it wants all the Digital Single Market files completed by the end of the year, in time for the European elections next year. That will be no easy feat given the list of outstanding issues the presidency inherits.

The Bulgarian presidency had a mixed level of success on digital issues over the last six months. It had some notable wins including a political agreement on the free flow of non-personal data, which bans data localisation rules and is a welcome boost to the European data economy. The Bulgarians also managed to reach agreement on the Telecommunications Code, BEREC regulations and the AVMS directive. However, success in reaching agreement does not necessarily mean success in reaching a positive outcome and there is some question about whether these files will achieve the aims desired.  

Additionally, limited progress was made on a number of other critical DSM files. They include the highly contentious and politically-charged ePrivacy reforms. While the European Parliament agreed a position last year the Council has not managed to reach agreement and it seems there are still fundamental disagreements in Council and with the Commission on the shape ePrivacy should take in a ‘GDPR world’. The Austrian presidency has indicated that ePrivacy will be its top digital priority, however time will tell whether they successfully reach an agreement this year.

While the Bulgarian presidency reached a position on the controversial Copyright directive towards the end of its term, the work is by no means done. The European Parliament will be voting on its position later this week and depending on the outcome the Austrian presidency will have to oversee trialogues which are likely to be difficult.

The Austrians will also have to tackle the Commission’s proposed ‘platform-to-business’ regulation and ongoing work on online content among other issues, not least finding agreement on the new EU budget, which has earmarked €9.2 billion for its next digital agenda.

It will be interesting to watch how the Austrian presidency approaches these issues given Austria has not traditionally led on digital issues at EU level. They will however be under considerable pressure by the European Commission, which continues to view the DSM as a fundamental to completing the Single Market for services.   

Aside from the outstanding DSM files, the Austrian presidency will also have to be heavily engaged in the enforcement of those parts of the DSM that have already come into force. Law is not static and with the first cases under GDPR already pending, how the presidency responds to the evolution of the DSM when out of the hands of the EU’s political institutions will set the tone for future initiatives.

The success or failure of the Digital Single Market initiative, which had ambitious aims, will likely be determined over the next six months. The Austrian presidency will play an important role in deciding whether the DSM achieves its stated ambitions, or whether the reality is that the DSM represents a set-back for the development of the European digital economy.

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