The digital domain will be an important focus for the new members of the European Union's executive branch, the European Commission, following their approval by the European Parliament on Wednesday.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) approved the new Commissioners by 423 votes to 209, with 67 abstentions.
The new President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, emphasized how important digital matters are ahead of the vote: "Every day, Europe is losing out by not unlocking the great potential of our huge digital single market. Jobs that should be there are not being created. Ideas -- the DNA of Europe's economy -- do not materialize to the extent they should. Let us change this for the better."
Harmonizing tech-related policy and laws across the European Union will now be the responsibility of two Commissioners who will replace outgoing digital commissioner Neelie Kroes in a realignment of that area. The portfolio will be split between Andrus Ansip, the new Vice President of the Commission responsible for the Digital Single Market, and Günther Oettinger, the new Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.
Ansip will lead a project team focusing on telecom regulation; copyright and data protection legislation; the management of radio spectrum, and the application of competition law, all while making better use of the opportunities offered by digital technologies.
During his confirmation hearing in the Parliament last month, he showed himself to be a hardliner when it comes to data protection. He warned the U.S. that the EU might suspend the Safe Harbor data-sharing agreement if U.S. lawmakers don't get their act together when it comes to protecting European citizens' data. This could have major implications for companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, among others, which process European citizens' data in the U.S.
However, the 58-year-old Ansip could have been more precise on when exactly he would be willing to suspend the agreement and, and in general, his replies often lacked concrete proposals, the Parliament said in its evaluation report. Overall, the former Estionian prime minister had a professional attitude and far reaching experience in the digital domain while making convincing political commitments, the Parliament found.
MEPs welcomed in particular his intention to push for a quick adoption of the new data protection package. They also appreciated his intention to continue to push for the abolition of roaming charges and the completion of the telecoms single market, as well as his support for greater harmonization on spectrum allocation and his bid to enshrine net neutrality in law.
Ansip is set to regulate net neutrality together with Oettinger, the new Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.
Oettinger will focus first on rolling out broadband and other key infrastructure while dealing with proposals to complete the digital market in the EU and concentrate on copyright reform, he said during his confirmation hearing.
Oettinger, a German who has been the EU's Commissioner for Energy until now, got a good review from the parliament, except from a small group of Greens. They seriously questioned his political views, according to the evaluation report.
Others asked for a stronger focus on data protection, media freedom and the related fundamental rights aspects. Oettinger should work very closely with Ansip as well with Vra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, and Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President for Fundamental Rights, to ensure that, in particular, data protection is fully embedded in his policy mandate, they said.
Another important player in the digital domain will be Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, who will keep a close eye on tech companies operating in Europe. During her confirmation hearing she said she would continue an anti-trust investigation against Google over visibility of competitors' search results that has been running since 2010.
She also committed to apply EU state aid guidelines vigorously, cracking down on member states' illegal tax deals with companies. Apple and Amazon.com are already the subjects of Commission investigations into alleged favorable tax treatment, in Ireland and in Luxembourg.
Now that the Parliament has given its consent, the European Council will formally appoint the Commissioners, who are expected to take their seats on Nov. 1.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to [email protected]
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