Another six months has elapsed, and so another presidency of the EU Council of Ministers begins. For the next half-year, the Irish government is in charge, the seventh time that they have led in the past 40 years. The budget for their presidency is, not surprisingly, less than when they undertook the function last time. Nevertheless, some attention has been paid in Euro-circles to the symbolism of their leading Europe at a time of the beginning of an apparent Irish economic recovery.
(If this recovery continues, it will be a challenge to those opposed to the euro, since it has been achieved without Ireland being able to devalue its currency, while the UK, which is able to devalue, does not seem yet to have escaped its economic difficulties. Solve that, you economic geniuses.)
In the announced priorities for their presidency, only two issues are of direct interest to lawyers – data protection and external trade.
Briefly, on data protection, the European Parliament committee reporters on the two measures which make up the data protection package issued their reports last week. For the general citizen-focused measure (as opposed to the one specifically targeted at law enforcement, which has lower standards), the reporter concluded that web-based firms that exploit users’ personal data for different purposes - including advertising - will have to obtain the users’ consent.
The highlight in the news coverage is that the modern day robber-barons, Google and Facebook, are not happy with the outcome. I am tempted to say: the EU must be doing something right then. But there are also concerns that, because this report sets such high and harmonised standards, it will adversely affect small businesses. The Irish presidency will try to advance the legislation during its period in charge.
Secondly, the new presidency also announced the following: ‘Given the close links between Ireland and the US, we are going to push forward with the idea of an EU-US free trade agreement.’ I wrote over a year ago about this idea, and in the manner of all trade deals, it has hardly moved forward at all since then. There are doubtless good reasons, such as the uncertainty over the US presidential election result. But the Irish government wants to speed up matters now. First, a High-Level Working Group between the EU and US needs to report (expected last month, but delayed by the presidential election). A 2% rise in EU GDP is expected to follow such a deal when finalised, which is good enough reason to proceed speedily.
The US is a market which interests solicitors a great deal. In the past, the Law Society has expended huge effort in trying to obtain easier requalification and practice rights there. In a previous incarnation, I was involved in trying to negotiate better practice rights for solicitors around the world. The UK embassies were always helpful, but power lay with the EU representation. It is evident that more negotiating power lies with a collection of 27 countries, many of them major players on the world’s economic stage.
The two priorities above feed directly into the debate which is going to consume us in the coming months – in or out of the EU? I see that business leaders and the US government are urging us to stay in, even not to have a referendum which might lead to an uncontrollable out. But that will not convince the out-ers. Nothing will convince them.
However, it is obvious: when dealing with Google and Facebook on the one hand (data protection), and the US government on the other (free trade agreement), will the UK obtain better deals on its own, or in conjunction with the 27 member states? Surely there can be only one answer - look at how Switzerland has been tossed about in relation to its banking secrecy - but some would prefer the UK all the same to be worse off, but on its own.
We each have a responsibility in the coming months to advance arguments which will further the good of the UK and of Europe as a whole.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs