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Estonia’s EU presidency: digital Europe and the free movement of data

On the 1st of July Estonia will take the helm of the presidency of the EU Council.

One of the country’s first priorities for the six-month presidency is to give a strong push towards creating a digital Europe and start working on the free movement of data across all 28 member states – a colossal and difficult undertaking, but equally rewarding for the 500 million people living in the EU.

Estonia has set a number of priorities for its EU presidency with digital Europe and the free movement of data being one of the most important ones. According to the official programme of the presidency “Europe must exploit the benefits of technological progress that is bringing continuous change to citizens, businesses and governments”. To that end, Estonia will focus on developing cross-border e-commerce and e-services; ensure modern and secure electronic communications are available everywhere across Europe, creating a favourable environment for new, innovative services and advance cross-border digital public services to facilitate everyday life. In May, the Estonian Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas, said in a speech to the parliament that Estonia’s image in the ICT sector is so strong in Europe that the EU actually expects the country to completely build an “e-Europe” in the six months the country is leading the bloc. “We have to be realistic. However, we do have a substantial digital programme that is vital for the future of Europe,” the Prime Minister noted.

One of the most important aspects in building a digital Europe is the free movement of data. To put it simply, the European Union has to move to a point where no country can impose restrictive measures on the free flow of data across member states’ borders. As the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves once remarked, it is easier to ship a bottle of olive oil from Sicily to the Arctic Circle than to send an iTunes song across a border. Or, to put it even more simply, ideally a medical e-prescription from Estonia should be valid in, say, Portugal, if the owner of the prescription happens to be travelling there and runs out of medicine.

The main obstacle is that the movement of data is currently in the hands of each member state’s national data protection agency, and each member decides which data can cross borders and which cannot. According to Ilves, the EU should remove the restrictions of the analogue world that inhibit free flow of data among the member states. Prime Minister Ratas, in his speech, agreed with the principle. “A digital society has clear premises. One of these is the free movement of data. If people, goods, services and capital can move within the European Union without limitations, so must data and information,” he said. “There is a lot to do to create a functioning digital internal market, and by the autumn we expect from the [European] Commission an initiative for the free movement of data.”

Margus Mägi, an advisor on digital policy at the Government Office of Estonia, an organisation with the mission to support the government and the Prime Minister in policy drafting and implementation, has in the meantime indicated that the ideas and proposals Estonia can make during its presidency will have a longer-term effect than the presidency itself. According to Mägi they will definitely rely on their expertise to provide potential ways forward for the EU in its goals to achieve the free movement of non-personal data as well as personal data. “The premise is that besides personal data, that can move freely as long as certain safeguards are applied, there should be a coherent and clear set of rules that enable the free movement of data that is not of a personal nature.”

Siim Sikkut, the vice chancellor of the Communications and State Information Systems at the Ministry of Economy and Communications, noted in an earlier interview that the difficult aspect with the European Union is that there is no quick victory in sight. “For example, at the moment I have on my desk the job of starting eIDAS, or the ordinance of e-identification and trust services. This should enable pan-European recognition of each other’s digital signatures and identities. Estonia started to talk about this in 2012/2013, if not earlier. By 2018, the ordinance should come into force.”

Ratas, too echoed that concern, saying that Estonians’ enthusiasm in the digital sphere is known to everyone, but sadly all countries don’t share it – big changes, he proclaimed, always bring fears and challenges. “I believe Europe is ready for a change of gear,” the Prime Minister asserted. “One of the clear signals is that in September, the Prime Ministers and Heads of State of the European Union will come to Tallinn to discuss the digital future of Europe. Together we will look, not only at tomorrow or the day after, but to five, ten and fifty years from now.”

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