US President Joe Biden traveled to Brussels this week to coordinate Washington’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with his EU, NATO and G7 allies. Energy policy dominated the meetings, but transatlantic data exchange was also very important.
The European district of the Belgian capital entered a particularly strict period of confinement on Thursday as Joe Biden arrived in Brussels for not one, not two but three international summits.
If it hadn’t been for the thick layer of pollution plaguing the rain-starved skies of Brussels these days, you would have been hard-pressed to make out a single blue spot among the swarm of helicopters surveying the city. .
The priority was how to wean Europe off its dependence on Russian energy imports, which help finance Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros every day.
EU countries have backed down from the idea of voluntarily cutting oil and gas flows overnight, but could have less say if the Kremlin decides to take the plunge and unilaterally cut off exports.
Putin has already decreed that state energy company Gazprom should stop accepting payments in anything but roubles, while gas storage sites in Europe begin to decline as Russia cuts imports.
This prompted Brussels and Washington to sign an LNG supply deal that should help the EU diversify some of its energy needs. The cost, how the demand will be met in the United States and where it will be discharged are still open questions.
Transatlantic negotiators also negotiated another agreement, which is not directly related to the situation in Ukraine. A rather unexpected breakthrough has occurred in the area of privacy law.
Two years ago, the EU’s top court struck down the so-called Privacy Shield, an agreement that governed data exchanges with the United States, after a landmark court case ruled that data from EU citizens risked being misused.
EU-based companies have continued to transfer data across the Atlantic as regulators across the bloc decided not to crack down on what are now arguably illegal transfers. But the pressure started to be felt.
Since the court ruling, the two sides have attempted to broker a new deal that addresses those concerns and still complies with the gold standard of the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
At yesterday’s European Council summit, it was announced that a tentative deal is on the table and officials now have a clear idea of the red lines and the kind of framework they want to put on paper.
“This will enable predictable and reliable data flows, balancing security, privacy rights and data protection. This is another step in strengthening our partnership,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of the pact.
This is far from the end of the saga. Whatever final deal the negotiators might come up with may require a re-examination of the full gamut of legal challenges and court cases. It might not even come to that if the EU fails to resolve some issues.
The United States would be open to the creation of a new agency to manage data flows, so that EU citizens have possible recourse if they believe their information is being misused. This was a key factor that torpedoed the original deal.
But a recent Supreme Court ruling gives the US government the power to protect the data it collects if it relates to national security concerns. This can be an insurmountable obstacle for a Privacy Shield 2.0.
This week’s announcement is nonetheless a major step forward and may well be the result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as both the EU and the US think more about global security.
Europe has agreed to what is sure to be a very costly LNG deal. It may have bought him some good faith from Washington, but that line of credit will only be worth anything with the current occupant of the White House.
If a deal drags on until the next term and Joe Biden is not re-elected, Brussels could find itself back at square one.
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