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Joe Biden wants to secure a political agreement with the European Union to restore confidence in data flowing across the Atlantic when he meets leaders in Brussels on June 15, according to five people with knowledge of the talks.
Such a deal would represent a major step toward removing suspicions and legal dangers that have plagued the transatlantic relationship since Edward Snowden, a U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower, revealed in 2013 that U.S. intelligence agencies had spied on global leaders, including many from the 27-country bloc.
Europe’s highest court has since struck down two transatlantic data transfer agreements that underpin billions of dollars in EU-U.S. digital trade. That includes invalidating the so-called Privacy Shield accord last July after judges ruled that Washington did not sufficiently protect EU citizens’ data from U.S. national security agencies when it was transferred across the Atlantic.
The deal that Biden is seeking — in the form of a high-level political agreement with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the upcoming EU-U.S. summit — would lay the groundwork for a new transatlantic data transfer deal, according to the five people, who spoke to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter, on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks.
Companies from Google to General Electric on both sides of the Atlantic have been pushing for such an agreement for almost a year, though major hurdles remain over potential limits on how U.S. national security agencies can access EU citizens’ data.
The White House’s proposals, which must still be hammered out and could change before the meeting, coincide with ongoing wariness from the EU about American surveillance practices. On Sunday, a Danish public broadcaster published allegations that the country’s intelligence agencies had helped the NSA to eavesdrop on EU leaders.
The report prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to demand answers from both the U.S. and Denmark. “If these revelations are correct, I want to say it is not acceptable among allies, very clearly,” he told a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday.
Biden is expected to urge von der Leyen to back a political agreement around a new data transfer agreement, according to sources in both Washington and Brussels. The goal, two of the officials added, was to secure overarching commitments to fast-track negotiations, which have so far struggled to overcome legal questions about how Washington can better protect EU citizens’ privacy rights. The technical details would then be left to both sides’ negotiating teams.
Underscoring how much Washington is putting on this diplomatic full-court press, Gina Raimondo, the U.S. commerce secretary, and Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, are expected to join Biden during his visit to Brussels. Both officials are central to the ongoing negotiations for a new U.S.-EU data transfer deal, as well as the pact’s impact on transatlantic digital trade.
Spokespeople for the European Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce declined to comment.
Build back better
The upcoming trip marks the first time that Biden and von der Leyen will meet in person to hammer out thorny issues from combating climate change to rebuilding the global economy hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Three officials said that a new transatlantic data transfer agreement was one of many policy discussions that were expected to take place at the June 15 summit.
But the highlighting of the topic — which could be included in the official communiqué produced by both sides at the end of the summit — is a sign of Washington’s growing interest in the issue. EU and U.S. negotiators have spent almost a year trying to reach a deal, though a final agreement is not expected until late 2021, at the earliest.
Top European officials are pushing for stronger commitments, including changes to U.S. legislation, from Washington to safeguard EU rights.
Speaking at POLITICO’s AI Summit this week, European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová urged U.S. policymakers to pass new rules that curbed federal agencies’ bulk data collection if Brussels and Washington were to reach a deal.
“A legally binding rule would be very useful, I would even say necessary,” she added in reference to the need for new U.S. laws — something that Washington has so far refused to do.
Since taking office in January, Biden’s administration has put forward suggestions to meet the EU’s concerns over how the bloc’s data is handled in the U.S., according to two individuals with knowledge of the matter who did not provide specifics on the recommendations.
Yet those proposals have yet to be met with approval from EU officials, who are concerned that Europe’s top court will again overturn any new data transfer deal that doesn’t have legally-binding restrictions on U.S. government surveillance activities.
After the White House proposed including data transfers in the upcoming EU-U.S. summit, two EU officials said they were surprised that the Biden administration was doubling down on the issue when both sides’ negotiating teams remained far apart on how best to solve the outstanding issues linked to U.S. government surveillance.
Still, a U.S. government official voiced frustration that Brussels was demanding American national security agencies limit their bulk data collection practices when many European national intelligence authorities used similar practices, often targeting U.S. citizens.
While the EU has the power to approve a transatlantic data deal, it has no say over EU countries’ security agencies because their authority is solely overseen by national governments.
Vincent Manancourt contributed reporting.
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