View from Brussels: Shields up

US President Joe Biden visited Brussels this week to coordinate Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with his EU, Nato and G7 allies. Energy policy dominated the meetings but there was also a big deal on transatlantic data exchanges.

The European quarter of the Belgian capital went into a particularly strict period of lockdown on Thursday as Joe Biden arrived in Brussels for not one, not two but three international summits.

If it were not for the thick layer of pollution plaguing the rain-starved skies of Brussels these days, you would have been hard pressed to make out any blue among the swarm of helicopters that were keeping a watchful eye on the city.

Top of the agenda was how to wean Europe off of its dependence on Russian energy imports, which are helping to fund Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros every day.

EU countries have flinched at the thought of voluntarily cutting off the oil and gas flows overnight but may have less say in the matter if the Kremlin decides to jump the gun and nix exports unilaterally.

Putin has already decreed that state-run energy firm Gazprom should stop accepting payments in anything but roubles, while gas storage sites in Europe are beginning to drop as Russia curtails imports.

That prompted Brussels and Washington to pen an LNG supply deal that should help the EU diversify some of its energy needs. The cost, how demand will be met stateside and where it will be unloaded are still open questions.

Transatlantic negotiators also brokered another agreement, one that is not directly linked to the situation in Ukraine. A rather unexpected breakthrough came in the area of privacy law.

Two years ago, the EU’s top court struck down the so-called Privacy Shield, an agreement that managed data exchanges with the US, after a landmark legal case ruled that the data of EU citizens was at risk of misuse.

Companies based in the EU continued to move data across the Atlantic as the bloc’s regulators decided not to crack down on what are now arguably illegal transfers. But pressure has begun to tell.

Ever since the court ruling, the two sides have tried to broker a new deal that addresses these concerns and is still in-keeping with the bloc’s gold standard General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

At the European Council’s summit yesterday, it was announced that an agreement in principle was on the table and that officials now have a clear idea of red lines and what kind of framework they want to put to paper.

“It will enable predictable and trustworthy data flows, balancing security, the right to privacy and data protection. This is another step in strengthening our partnership,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of the pact.

This is far from the end of the saga. Whatever final deal negotiators may come up with will maybe have to re-run the gamut of legal challenges and court cases. It might not even get to that stage if the EU cannot resolve certain issues.

The US is reportedly open to setting up a new agency to deal with data flows, so EU citizens would have possible recourse if they feel 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 power to shield data it collects if it is linked to national security concerns. That may be an insurmountable hurdle for a Privacy Shield 2.0.

This week’s announcement is major progress nonetheless and may well have been a result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, as both the EU and US are thinking more about global security.

Europe has agreed to what will certainly be a very expensive LNG deal. That may have bought it some good faith from Washington but that line of credit will only be worth something with the current occupant of the White House.

If a deal drags on and into the next term and Joe Biden is not reelected, Brussels might find itself back at square one.

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