Prime Minister David Cameron tried unsuccessfully to stall the introduction of a strong European-wide data protection law until 2015, when he met his fellow EU country leaders at last week's (25 October) top-level summit, according to an EU official.
But Britain succeeded in watering down the summit's declaration - from supporting the law's ratification by spring 2014 to saying it should be “timely”, the diplomat said.
Meanwhile, in a summit dominated by the cyber security and privacy agenda, Europe's leaders obliquely referred to the US's alleged electronic spying on European citizens and politicians and highlighted “the deep concerns that these events have raised among European citizens”.
The 28 heads of government warned the US that a “lack of trust could prejudice the necessary co-operation in the field of intelligence gathering”. And they confirmed France and Germany are now seeking bilateral talks with the US to try to find an “understanding” over this issue before the end of this year.
They also called for “rapid and constructive progress” from a joint EU-US group of cyber security and data protection experts, which was set up in July to investigate the alleged US electronic mass surveillance.
But this call also looks like a veiled criticism of the US – the group were due to report back this month but, according to an EU official, they are now meeting for a third time in November to give the US more time to come back on the latest allegations against it.
In terms of data protection reform, the division between the UK and a number of its European partners reflects how the issue has risen to the very top of the political agenda. But despite Mr Cameron's intervention, it is expected a single strengthened pan-European data protection law will be adopted before the next European Parliament elections in May 2014.
The EU official, who supports the reform, told SC that the majority of leaders at the summit wanted to agree the reforms by spring 2104 with Italy, France and Poland strongly in favour. But: “Then came in Mr Cameron who said basically not before 2015 - this was the wording he wanted. Then he was joined by Sweden. And then the compromise that was found is that basically you now have the word ‘timely', before the adoption of the strong data protection framework.
But the official added: “I think in this case the important thing is that Cameron did not get his way in saying ‘not before 2015'.”
Debate over the proposed law will now shift to the full European Parliament and the individual data privacy ministers from each EU member country, who will decide how swiftly to move ahead. The ministers are next due to meet in December.
Other initiatives at the summit included a call for “concrete steps” to integrate digital skills into the earliest stages of education onwards, to plug a lack of ICT skills among European citizens. The summit said Europe currently has 300,000 job vacancies in the ICT sector and this could rise to 900,000 by 2015.
The leaders also called for extra investment to speed up the deployment of 4G and broadband technology across Europe, and for cloud and big data to be promoted as strategic technologies.