Why is there a new College of Commissioners at the European Commission?
Following the EU elections in May 2019, the European Union is going through a change of institutional leadership. A new Parliament, directly elected by EU citizens, took office in July; Charles Michel, a former Belgian Prime Minister, was designated by the 28 heads of state as the new head of the European Council and will take office on 1 December; and now the new President of the European Commission, former German defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, will take office on 1 November and has designated a new College of Commissioners of the European Commission (the rough equivalent to national Ministers). That College must be confirmed or rejected by the European Parliament. The mandate of each of these leadership positions lasts for five years.
What does the European Commission do?
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, and upholding the EU treaties, including to respect and promote the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The European Parliament and Council of the EU are co-legislators. They have the power to adopt and amend legislation proposed by the Commission and they decide together on the annual EU budget.
How are the Commissioners chosen?
The new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has been designated by national heads of state and confirmed by the European Parliament over the summer. Earlier in September, each national government put forward the name of their respective candidates to become Commissioner, and President-elect von der Leyen has now built a distribution of portfolios according to her long-term plans. The Commission’s College will thus consist of 26 Commissioners, one for each EU country, except for the United Kingdom, which is scheduled to leave the EU on 31 October.
Over the next few weeks, the candidates to become Commissioner will have to go through a confirmation hearing led by the European Parliament. Below, we provide a list of the candidates to take on the most relevant portfolios for digital rights, and include a list of key topics and questions that we expect them to address. We hope Members of the European Parliament will ask them about these matters during the confirmation hearings. You can also participate in the debate and send your own question via Twitter using the #AsktheCom hashtag.
Who are the nominees with a digital portfolio?
Country: Denmark 🇩🇰
Ms. Vestager was European Commissioner for Competition in the previous Commission (2014-2019)
Commissioner Vestager has been nominated to take up a second term as the EU’s Competition Commissioner. She has held this portfolio in the outgoing Juncker Commission during which she led high-profile cases involving Big Tech and started looking into the power that these companies have acquired by harvesting personal data with little to no oversight. In addition, she would become one of three Executive Vice Presidents of the European Commission, taking up a senior leadership role within the College.
Her portfolio as Vice President of the Commission also includes overseeing the EU’s digital policies and coordinating the work of all Commissioners involved on that front. If Vestager is confirmed in this job, it is not clear how much direct influence and control she will have over specific digital policies or upcoming legislative proposals, although she is expected to have a key role in overseeing the EU’s next steps on artificial intelligence. As a first insight to her list of priorities, in one of her speeches after her nomination, Commissioner Vestager indicated that more rules might be necessary to complement the EU General Data Protection Regulation to prevent platforms from misusing data.
- The European approach toward “trustworthy AI” requires AI systems to be legal (including to respect fundamental rights), ethical, and robust. What concrete actions are necessary to achieve that on the EU and on the Member State level? How will you leverage this approach in the EU’s international relations?
- How will you ensure that the EU’s AI strategy and any potential legislation on algorithms and automated decision-making systems respect and promote the fundamental rights of individuals, and that it has positive societal benefits?
- What is the role of the European Commission in addressing areas where there is no social acceptance for the design, development or deployment of algorithms, automated decision-making systems, or artificial intelligence?
- Will the European Commission propose criteria to assess or define domains or use cases where AI-assisted technologies should not be developed or deployed (so-called “red lines”)?
- Will the Commission address the human rights and societal impacts of facial recognition and other biometric detection systems?
- The EU has become a leader in the protection of personal data in the region and globally. How will you build on this trend with regard to the promotion of the design, development, and deployment of AI systems to respect human rights?
- In a recent speech, you mentioned that additional rules may be needed to address platforms’ misuse of data. What kind of rules do you have in mind, in particular related to profiling?
- Will you take steps to address that Facebook has not adhered to the criteria set by the Commission in the Facebook/WhatsApp merger regarding the disclosure of data between the two companies?
- How can your actions in the area of competition and antitrust help guarantee and promote the respect and strengthening of human rights in the digital age, and in particular the fundamental rights encompassed in the EU Charter?
Time and date of the hearing: Tuesday 8 October, 14.30-17.30 CEST. Watch the hearing online here.
Country: France 🇫🇷
Former Deputy Governor of France’s Central Bank (2017-2019), Former Defense Minister (2017), Former Member of the European Parliament (2009-2017)
The proposed distribution of portfolios will put Ms. Goulard at the epicenter of digital policy-making in the EU. Ms. Goulard would directly oversee most policies related to the Digital Single Market, from the development and roll out of 5G networks and new generation technologies, to the Internet of Things and cybersecurity, and would lead the efforts towards a new Digital Services Act, a much-talked about, far-reaching legislative initiative that seeks to reform a large number of EU laws regulating the online ecosystem.
Goulard has also been nominated to oversee the EU policies related to the internal market — which focus on promoting the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital across the EU — and lead a new Commission department for Defence Industry and Space. If confirmed, Goulard would oversee a considerably large portfolio and number of staff.
- In 2017, the European Commission initiated the much-needed reform of the ePrivacy Directive, a law that protects the rights to privacy and confidentiality of communications in the digital age and is thus a key pillar to protecting human rights in Europe. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how EU citizens’ personal information can be used for targeting purposes and to influence political views during elections. The reform of this law (being discussed as the ePrivacy Regulation) would offer urgently needed additional safeguards to communicate and share online free of interference. How will you work with the Council of the EU and the European Parliament to ensure the swift conclusion of the reform?
- The Internet of Things market in Europe is developing rapidly. However, a large number of products have been leaking personal information or had important security vulnerabilities. Which measures will you take as Commissioner to prevent market failure and address these issues, including the promotion of privacy and security by design of hardware and software available in the EU?
Time and date of the hearing: Wednesday 2 October, 14.30-17.30 CEST. Watch the hearing online here.
Country: Czech Republic 🇨🇿
Former European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality (2014-2019)
Commissioner Jourová was responsible for Justice, Equality, and Consumer rights in the outgoing Juncker Commission. In this capacity, she oversaw data protection and as such led the implementation work of the EU General Data Protection Regulation as it entered into application. Commissioner Jourová also spearheaded soft policies on the regulation of online content such as controversial and ill-designed initiatives on hate speech. Commissioner Jourová has been nominated to become Vice President in the next Commission and is set to keep responsibility in the fight against hate speech online.
- The EU values promoted in the Treaties, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Charter, and the rule of law are all under threat in too many places in the EU. The European Commission is the Guardian of the Treaties and has therefore the duty to protect these rights and values. Which concrete steps will you take to enforce them, including any necessary infringement procedures against EU states?
- Among all rights endangered in the EU, the attack on civil society and media freedom from several EU states has been particularly visible in the last legislature, from the passage of anti-NGO laws to the murders of journalists. What will the European Commission do to protect media freedom and civic space in the EU?
Time and date of the hearing: Monday 7 October, 14.30-17.30 CEST. Watch the hearing online here.
Country: Belgium 🇧🇪
Former Defence Minister (2018-2019), Former Foreign Affairs Minister and Vice Prime Minister (2011-2018)
Didier Reynders, former Belgian foreign minister, has been nominated to become Commissioner for Justice and Consumers. If confirmed in this position, he will be in charge of data protection, which involves ensuring the full implementation and enforcement of the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
He is also poised to take part in the working group to ensure that the rule of law is upheld across the European Union and will oversee consumer protection and judicial cooperation between the Member States.
- With the adoption of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, the EU positioned itself as a leader in the protection of the right to data protection around the world. More than a year after the entry into application of the law, many supervisory authorities in the EU lack the funds to enforce the law and to deliver its promises to citizens. Others are delaying decisions. What resources will the Commission allocate to ensure that EU data protection authorities have the necessary funding, resources, and independence to protect citizens’ rights?
- The Commission is empowered to conclude and reform adequacy decisions that enable the transfer of personal data from the EU to third countries, an instrument that facilitates the free flow of personal data while upholding the safeguards included in the GDPR and the EU Charter. With which countries will the Commission seek to initiate, continue, or launch the reform of existing adequacy decisions? What are the criteria to initiate a negotiation for adequacy decision or other “international convergence in data protection and data flows”? Do you commit to make the criteria or assessment public? How will you ensure that the arrangements with third countries leading to adequacy decisions are fully in line with EU law? What are your plans to make sure that the “horizontal provisions for cross-border data flows and for personal data protection” adopted under the Juncker Commission is the negotiating standard in all bilateral, multilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations?
- The EU and its Member States promote the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and have put forward legislation to help implement them. Given the growing impact of companies’ practices in and outside the EU, the EU should further codify obligations for business across all sectors, including security and defence, to respect human rights protected under the EU Charter. Will the EU Commission propose the necessary legislation on corporate social responsibility (going beyond the Directive on non-financial reporting)?
Time and date of the hearing: Wednesday 2 October, 9.00-12.00 CET. Watch the hearing online here.
Country: Sweden 🇸🇪
Former Minister for Employment (2014-2019)
The nominee for Commissioner for Home affairs, Ylva Johansson, is currently Minister for Employment in Sweden. If confirmed in this position, she will be in charge of overseeing important files related to law enforcement access to data, including the proposed e-evidence legislation. Issues like data retention, border controls, and passenger name records will also be under her portfolio. The past Commissions adopted legislation in these areas that often led to the establishment of surveillance measures in the EU; one of the challenges of her mandate will be to bring these laws in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU jurisprudence.
- In a 2017 opinion, the EU Court of Justice indicated that the draft EU Canada PNR agreement was not in line with Europeans’ fundamental rights to privacy, data protection, and non-discrimination. Important lessons and conclusions can be drawn from this opinion with regard to the structure and validity of other existing PNR frameworks in the EU, including the EU Directive. What steps will you take to ensure the review of all PNR frameworks in light of the jurisprudence of the EU Court of Justice?
- The EU Court of Justice has developed rich jurisprudence in the area of data retention. While more cases are pending in front of the Court in Luxembourg, what guidance will the EU Commission provide to EU states to implement the existing jurisprudence on data retention?
- A large number of adopted security, migration, and law enforcement cooperation measures such as Smart Borders, PNR, or ID laws, rely on services offered by private companies active in the field of security and defense that provide software and hardware to public authorities in the EU. What measures will the EU Commission take to provide more transparency in the allocation of contracts to these companies and to ensure that these companies do not have access to the data, which may include sensitive data such as biometrics?
- As fundamental rights equally apply offline and online, what concrete actions will the European Commission take to protect anonymity and security online, including in the context of law enforcement criminal investigations?
Time and date of the hearing: Tuesday 1 October, 14.30-17.30 CEST. Watch the hearing online here.
Country: Spain 🇪🇸
Former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister (2018-2019), Former President of the European Parliament (2004-2007)
Josep Borrell, until recently Spain’s foreign Minister, was nominated by the European Council on 2 July to become High Representative for EU Foreign Policy, which could be described as the equivalent of an EU foreign affairs minister. If confirmed in this role by the European Parliament, he will oversee the EU’s external policies, which include developing an external cybersecurity strategy, promoting human rights online and off around the world, and setting up priorities for the monitoring of electoral processes around the world.
- How will the EU fight against the rise of internet shutdowns, in particular in the context of elections, which severely impacts the rights and freedom of people?
- What will be the focus of the upcoming EU external strategy in terms of cybersecurity, freedom of expression, and privacy?
Time and date of the hearing: Monday 7 October, 14.30-17.30 CEST. Watch the hearing online here.