The European Union and the United Kingdom want to rein in the digital world. They just don’t want to do it together.
As both sides struggle to resolve the political impasse of the Northern Ireland protocol, the European Commission has shut down all official coordination and cooperation with the British government on key digital policy issues like policing online content, hobbling the dominance of Big Tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, and protecting people’s online data, according to seven officials who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal EU-U.K. communications.
As part of this diktat, Commission officials cannot swap notes or share information with their British counterparts on digital areas or ongoing investigations that both sides of the English Channel have made top priorities, the officials confirmed.
The policy came into force earlier this year after outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made it clear the current post-Brexit situation in Northern Ireland — which has created a border between the region and the rest of Great Britain — was no longer tenable. London passed legislation this month to give the U.K. government unilateral powers to change or abolish controls previously agreed with the EU on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the country. In response, the Commission has threatened legal action.
Neither the Commission nor the U.K.’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport immediately responded to a request for comment.
The Commission’s ghosting of its British counterparts comes as both sides are working on similar digital overhauls — although the U.K. is now falling behind on its separate proposals in the wake of internal fighting within the country’s Conservative Party over how far the upcoming legislation should go in reining in potential digital abuses.
So far, Brussels has passed the so-called Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, tandem legislation aimed at forcing social media companies to be held more responsible for online content and at policing Big Tech’s potential abuse of its online dominance. London had proposed its own Online Safety Bill — similarly targeting online content — and a new division within the country’s Competition and Markets Authority specifically targeting Silicon Valley’s biggest names.
Yet those two proposals are now on a knife-edge ahead of the installation of a new Conservative Party leader in early September, after local politicians balked at how those proposals may hamper free speech and harm the U.K.’s economic growth. It’s unclear whether the country’s new content rules will go ahead in the fall, while the legislation needed to overhaul the U.K.’s competition policies has been postponed indefinitely.
Still, Commission and British government officials have long-standing ties, and — even in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016 — had continued to cooperate and coordinate on digital policies and investigations that spanned both jurisdictions. In March, for instance, both antitrust agencies announced coordinated investigations into potential illegal advertising practices by Meta and Alphabet, the parent companies of Facebook and Google, respectively.
Andrea Coscelli, the U.K.’s outgoing competition chief, told POLITICO in May that his agency had been working with the Commission “as closely as it can under the current institutional framework.” But there was still “a bit of a gap” in how the British authority was able to work alongside its Brussels-based counterpart. Incoming interim chief Sarah Cardell has called for the regulator to pursue greater international collaboration under her leadership.
After the U.K. officially left the EU at the end of 2020, the country’s competition authority no longer had direct ties to the Commission’s antitrust cases, including the potential to share documents directly with officials. Yet unofficial discussions, particularly via WhatsApp messages between officials who have known each other for years, continue, according to four of the officials who spoke to POLITICO.
One British official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that regular updates were still shared through encrypted messaging services, while another EU official said people still held off-the-record discussions when they meet each other at conferences. But official meetings with Commission or U.K. government delegations were now off limits.
“We’re still talking, but it’s no longer through official channels,” said another EU official.
Vincent Manancourt and Samuel Stolton contributed reporting from Brussels.
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