Macron’s win will put wind in the sails of EU’s digital strategy

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By Magnus Franklin. Published 8 May 2017.

Europe's digital single market strategy is set to get a rejuvenating boost from the election as French president of pro-EU liberal Emmanuel Macron.

While he may struggle to get lawmakers to pass his ambitious national overhaul, his influence on Europe will be more tangible and coincides with the halfway point of the EU legislative cycle.

In his victory speech last night, Macron highlighted three "opportunities" that the "gigantic challenges" he faces in his presidency can offer. These were "the digital revolution, the ecological transition [and] Europe's recovery."

In highlighting both the digital economy and the European Union's health, Macron's speech sends an important signal to an EU struggling with a French position that seems at times to sit entirely at odds with the notion of its vaunted digital single market.

France has been the chief agitator in recent months against an EU plan to embed the principle that data should be able to move freely in the bloc.

France has also been a champion of the fight by national governments against an EU "power grab" in pushing for coordination among member states in assigning wireless frequencies to operators. Only last week, French representatives told judges that the bloc's meddling in wireless rules came close to putting the country's nuclear deterrent at risk.

Paris, along with Berlin, has also been spearheading the notion of platform regulation in the EU, reining in the power of companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon on the web.

The digital arena is naturally part of a much bigger plan for changes in France that encompass issues such as the fight against terrorism along with education and the labor market. And much of the commentary around Macron's sweeping victory last night rightly focuses on the challenges he will have in pushing his agenda through the French lawmaking bodies, where he may struggle to form a stable coalition of partners to implement his revamp.

Influence

In Europe, the story is different. In Brussels, Macron will be able to wield his influence directly, and while all EU states are equal under the treaty, some are more equal than others — certainly the case for France, and particularly as the UK heads for the exit.

Macron's legislative program offers a taste of what this might mean in practice.

Top of his list is the creation of an EU-wide digital single market, suggesting that the traditional French third way may be ditched for a more collaborative approach with the other 26 EU states left after Brexit. Innovative companies "should have the same rules everywhere in the European Union," Macron's manifesto says.

Global watch

But his policy program also signals trouble ahead for some of the digital giants — the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and their peers — that have traditionally been in the sights of French lawmakers.

He wants to renegotiate the Privacy Shield accord that underpins the transfer of data between the US and the EU for the close to 2,000 companies so far signed up to the system.

Macron also wants to set up a new EU "digital trust" authority tasked with regulating the big global digital platforms by policing their handling of personal data and ensuring they operate as "loyally" to their customers and society as they promise.

He further promises to propose an EU-wide tax on the provision of electronic services, to stop global web companies from taking their profits and stashing them in tax havens.

Domestic boost

At home, even in a challenging legislative environment, Macron has ideas for how to ramp up France's digital economy. One is to grant innovative companies a "sandbox" environment where they can test new ideas for a limited time without having to worry about regulatory compliance.

Macron's promise to plug the whole country in to the digital revolution, meanwhile, may well be a simple statement of fact rather than a political promise. France's policymakers, regulators and the telecom industry have spent the last decade preparing to roll out superfast connectivity nationwide. Macron's five years in power will see this rollout completed, and for the most part it will happen irrespective of the political tide.

The extent to which Macron will be able to realize his plan is far from certain, but there will be a change in tone of the digital debate in Brussels.

That change will be most welcome to the European Commission, which has got the ball rolling on the bulk of its digital single market strategy. Packaged into dozens of policy initiatives across three digital themes, it includes a slew of draft laws in areas like copyright, telecom and privacy — but has so far only managed to get EU lawmakers to sign off on one of them.