What does Spain’s Presidency of the Council of the EU mean for tech policy in Europe?

By Sam Boyle, Consultant


July is shaping up to be a big month politically for Spain. The beginning of the month was marked by the handover of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union while the end of the month could see the end of Pedro Sánchez’s coalition government. However, as temperatures across Europe soar, most Spaniards would rather be escaping the hustle and bustle of the main cities and enjoying their summer holidays at their costal homes. Locals will be looking to enjoy the bull running festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, the Fiesta de Santiago Apostol in Galicia, and the Gran Fira de Valencia, rather than being buffeted by campaign ads and traipsing out to vote on a Sunday.

Back in Brussels, and Spain is holding the presidency for the fifth time under the motto ‘Europe, closer’ highlighting its commitment to advancing European unity, bringing citizens closer to the decisions present in day-to-day lives. Sánchez stated days after Spain took over the presidency that “Europe faces major challenges at home and abroad. And to rise to them, inaction is not an option.”

In terms of tech policy, and in particular on online safety, the Spanish presidency of the EU Council circulated its first compromise text of the regulation to fight child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online focusing on risk assessment and mitigation measures. The text doesn’t touch upon some of the controversial aspects of the legislation, but instead focuses on risk assessment and mitigation measures. Perhaps this early step in ensuring the safety of children online is not too surprising, given Spain’s previous views on online safety and the necessary steps to take to ensure children are protected online. A document leaked in the Spring outlined that Spain took one of the strongest views regarding CSAM and advocated for scrapping end-to-end encryption entirely as, “ideally, in [their] view, it would be desirable to legislatively prevent EU-based service providers from implementing end-to-end encryption,” in order to catch criminals in the virtual world. While Spain considers CSAM regulation one of its tech priorities, it will likely fall on Belgium to finalise it during its turn with the presidency.

Spain has also been clamping down on big tech from stifling competition. In March 2023, its antitrust watchdog opened an investigation into Google for allegedly abusing its dominance by imposing unfair commercial conditions on domestic publishers and news agencies that aim to exploit the use of their copyrighted content. The investigation seeks to determine if Google, and its parent company Alphabet, abused their dominant position in the Spanish market. Given this, it will be interesting to see if Spain uses the presidency to ensure member states are enforcing the Digital Markets Act (DSA) to curb the market dominance of big tech in the European Union. While it won’t have direct powers, for the next 6 months, Spain must ensure cooperation among member states and coordination among the other EU-institutions, including the EU Commission who is the enforcer of the rules laid down in the DSA.

Spain’s stint as Chair of the EU Council meetings also comes at an opportune time for its Artificial Intelligence (AI) policy leaders. Spain has been positioning itself as the EU’s leader in all things AI for a long time now and is poised to host the bloc’s first “AI sandbox”, a testbed for companies that want to make sure their product is complaint with regulation. Further, it is one of the few countries around the world to have a dedicated government position for AI. Carme Artigas is the current Secretary of State for Digitisation and Artificial Intelligence, a former cofounder and CEO of a pioneer European big data company, who is a keen advocate for Europe leading the way in AI over the US and China. The European Parliament last month adopted its position on the AI Act and now Spain has a massive opportunity to ensure it is passed into law.

For those taking only a partial interest in Spain, the abundance of ongoing policy initiatives might come as a surprise. What might be more surprising was the decision to call a snap election, which critics argue could negatively affect the influence of Spain’s presidency, where conservative and far right groups are expected to do well after five years under the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Spanish officials state however that the election will have little effect, if any, as the presidency has been prepared for months, if not years in coordination with partner countries Belgium and Hungary, which will take turns to preside next year. While that is undoubtedly true, the gravity of political mechanics have a unique ability to suck in attention, threatening to undermine Spain’s opportunity to plant their flag on tech regulation in Europe.

Atticus will be providing insights following the election results this weekend and into early next week, so keep posted for further updates!

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