Europe’s Digital Policy - What to Expect from the Hearing of the Incoming Tech Commissioner(s)

Crispin Maenpaa

The aftermath of the European elections and allocation of Commissioner portfolios has given Europe’s digital agenda a renewed political impetus. As the dust settles, the Commissioner’s hearings will provide a first opportunity to hear the EU’s new leaders detail their tech vision.

Amidst a backdrop of Europe’s search for digital sovereignty, these political auditions may bring clarity on the overlapping political responsibilities, the legislative intentions for online platforms and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the newly elected MEPs that will drive the agenda.

Responsibility under a Tech Commissioner Conglomerate?

On paper, the Executive Vice-President for a ‘Europe fit for the Digital Age’,  Margrethe Vestager (Renew Europe, DK), can be considered as the leading force for the Commission’s work on digital. While the New York Times has labelled Vestager the ‘New Digital Czar’, it would be foolish to overlook the key role of the Commissioner for the Internal Market, Sylvie Goulard (Renew Europe, FR). Goulard has leadership on Artificial Intelligence, the Digital Services Act, 5G, and cybersecurity. Indeed, this dynamic ‘tech duo’ is further bolstered by the Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, who will deal with data privacy issues.

Whilst Vestager, Goulard, and Reynders may be the nexus for digital policy decisions, there are at least 8 Commissioners, Vice-Presidents, or Executive Vice-Presidents who can claim input into the next mandates digital policy.  What role will there be for Vice-President Vera Jourova (EPP, CZ) given her oversight on disinformation? Will Commissioner Mariya Gabriel’s (EPP, BU) remit on digital skills be central to the development of AI? How will Paolo Gentiloni (S&D, IT) handle his work on digital tax, which is also under the remit of Vestager?

We can expect these overlapping responsibilities to be a key line of questioning, alongside queries about how so many political personalities can work together.

Headline grabbing policy problems

The tail-end of the last political mandate saw the publication of ‘ethical guidelines on AI’ and the closure of the infamous Copyright Directive. These milestones heavily influenced the Brussels’ political mindset and have ensured that AI and online platforms are central policy issues.

Indeed, thanks to a series of leaks regarding a much-rumoured Digital Services Act (DSA), MEPs will want to hone in on the topic of Online Platforms and the Commission’s intentions. The DSA is intended to review the e-Commerce Directive, which sets in place the governing framework for online platforms and their respective liability regimes. As a defining topic for the next five-year mandate, there are political skirmishes on the horizon with the initial public barrage of questions and political maneuverings set to arise during these hearings.

For AI, there has been an additional political boost thanks to Commission President-elect Von der Leyen promising legislation on AI during her first 100 days in office. With a plethora of portfolios implicated, we can expect questions that touch on consumer protection, data privacy, ethical use, and data sharing. However, there is also a fundamental need to understand how such legislation can arrive in 100 days. The Commission is legally required to keep Public Consultations open for 12 weeks, which leaves a record-breaking 16 days to draft, finalise, and propose new legislation.

Parliament’s digital credentials?

The September ‘rentree’ of MEPs took place without the ECR’s tech savvy Daniel Dalton, the EPP’s digitalisation guru Michal Boni, and the Greens/EFA copyright chief Julia Reda. The European elections and Committee reshuffles mean that approximately 78% of MEPs in IMCO will be new to that Committee’s work, in JURI this is up to 68%, and LIBE stands at 71%.  Suffice to say that the Parliament has lost some proven digital experience and expertise.

Whilst our attention may be focused upon Commissioner statements, we can expect Parliament’s internal battles to an intriguing side-story.  The presence of multiple Committees at each hearing will lead to political battles to stake claim for competence over digital issues. Goulard alone faces five committees at her hearing, all of which will want to demonstrate their competence and lay claim to a particular policy territory for the next five years.

At the Group level, Birgit Sippel provides a strong S&D voice, whilst Axel Voss can take up the EPP’s digital reigns. Most interesting are the Greens/EFA who need to create a renewed digital team and thus Terry Reintke and Patrick Breyer may try to flex their credentials as the Greens’ number one digital expert.

Tech Policy’s opening prelude

After the upheaval of European elections and allocation of Commissioner portfolios, the Parliament’s hearings provide a first view upon this new political landscape.

With profound political questions surrounding Commissioner responsibility and Parliamentary expertise, as well as defining policy questions on AI and Online Platforms, the hearings are certain to be a turbulent prelude to the EU’s five-year mandate on tech policy.