The forthcoming European elections are important in a lot of ways – but one of them, for me a critical one, is barely making the news. This European election could be crucial for privacy – and that’s one of the main reasons that I will be voting Green in May.
There are many, many issues that are coming into the public debate on the European elections within the UK. Our very future in the EU, for a start. The spectre of the rise of UKIP – whose campaign poster launched over the Easter weekend was truly vile and xenophobic. The likely humiliation for the Lib Dems – their duplicity and complicity in the nastiness of the Coalition government has not been forgotten, and neither should it be. The subject of privacy – and in particular data privacy – has been barely mentioned – and therein lies the problem. We in the UK do not, in general, take privacy seriously at all. The limpness of our reaction to the revelations of Edward Snowden is just one example. The way the government is attempting to sell health data (and more recently HMRC trying to sell our tax data) is another: privacy is very low on the priority list. Data protection is the best example of all – the UK resisted proper data privacy from the start, and has continued to campaign against it, with a mixture of whinging and wining and actual undermining of the legislation: the UK’s implementation of the 1995 Data Protection Directive was flawed to say the least.
That has continued with the current drive to reform the data protection regime for the internet era. Negotiations on that reform have been going on for some years – and the UK government has been doing its best to water down the potential reform, to weaken our privacy rights as much as possible. They’re doing so still, both in public and in the background – and at a time when we need those rights, that protection, more than ever. Data protection is deeply flawed and fundamentally incomplete – but it is still a crucial part of the picture, and one of the few forms of protection that we have.
One key to the reform as it is currently set out is that it is a regulation rather than a directive – which means, in effect, that it will be automatically implemented in a uniform way across the EU. Specifically, we in the UK would not be able to produce a weaker implementation, more ‘business-friendly’ (i.e. less privacy-friendly) with more holes in it to exploit. The UK government is still lobbying against this move – though it seems unlikely that they will succeed.
However, the reform is at a pivotal stage. The European Parliament has passed it in a fairly strong (though far from perfect) form – but with the intricacies of the European system, that does not mean that everything is finished. There are several stages to go through, and the Council of Ministers (effectively the representatives of the governments of the member states) still have a hand in it. It seems entirely likely that they will attempt to water it down – effectively to reduce our privacy protection. At that point, there will need to be as strong a European Parliament as possible to resist this. If we care about privacy, we need strong data protection – and that means we need to do our best to get a European Parliament that understands the issues and is willing and able to drive this through.
That’s where the European elections come in. It would be great if the regulation was agreed before the election – but it seems very unlikely now. That, ultimately, is the reason I shall be voting Green. The Tories have consistently tried to undermine data protection. The Lib Dems have largely done what their Tory masters have told them. Labour are just as bad – and just as much in the hands of the industry lobbies as the Tories are. UKIP are so repellent in every way that even if they were fully in favour of strong data protection reform, I would never vote for them. The Greens, on the other hand, get the issue right. It’s in the manifesto of the Green candidates in my particular area – and the Greens throughout Europe have been very positive for privacy. Jan-Phillip Albrecht, a Green MEP from Germany, has played the lead role in ensuring that the reform has not been driven off track by the lobbyists.
What is more, in my region at least, a Green vote could well be effective. Because there is a form of proportional representation in the European elections, in our region, the East of England Region, it will not take that much of a swing to elect a Green MEP. People should check their own regions carefully to see whether the same would work for them. If there’s a chance, I think it’s a chance worth going for.
There are of course other excellent reasons to vote Green – but this one is quite specific and is one of the particular areas where (in my opinion) European politics and European law can really help. If left to our major political parties, we in the UK would make a godawful mess of the whole thing.