THE Brexit clusterbùrach continues apace at Westminster and it has become nigh on impossible to make any sense of it, in particular when explaining it to my increasingly incredulous MEP colleagues from across Europe. The only difference is that, whereas we in Scotland have been dragged into this mire against our will and may suffer draconian consequences for it, the rest of Europe can regard it as nothing more than a surreal sideshow. To them, it is of secondary importance (at best) to the many serious challenges which they continue to address through pan-European co-operation.
First published in The National, 21 December 2018
A good example of such a challenge came before the European Parliament during our last plenary session of 2018 in Strasbourg from December 10 to 14. The Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs studied proposals from the European Commission related to infringements of rules on the protection of personal data in the context of elections to the European Parliament. This follows the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal which, as we all know, was of direct relevance to the 2016 EU membership referendum.
In a nutshell, the commission proposal is to allow financial sanctions on European political parties or foundations that use infringements of data protection rules to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of elections to the European Parliament.
I have no qualms whatsoever about the content of the commission’s proposals, which are clearly an essential measure to protect our democracies in this digital age. I do, however, share the concerns of my colleagues in the Greens/EFA Group that the fast-track procedure employed by the commission on this occasion is not ideal (even if it belies the ill-informed perception of the EU institutions as being inflexible and unwieldy). I understand the commission’s desire to have these provisions in place ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019, but proper parliamentary scrutiny must never be overlooked. I don’t believe that has been the case here, but we must never become complacent and fast-track procedures should be used sparingly.
So what do the Commission’s proposals mean in practice? It is
very simple. I will give you an example of exactly the kind of scenario which the EU institutions as a whole intend to prevent, one which took place in the run-up to the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership and which directly influenced the outcome. At the outset of the campaign period, the Vote Leave organisation was given a spending limit of £7 million by the Electoral Commission, but in addition to that they donated £625,000 to the (officially independent) BeLeave organisation, which on the instruction of Vote Leave spent the money on the services of an obscure Canadian firm named AggregateIQ. Working with the now disgraced firm Cambridge Analytica, AggregateIQ provided data obtained from Facebook to both Vote Leave and BeLeave. The two ostensibly distinct campaign groups co-ordinated their work and accessed the very same datasets of personal data of millions of voters in the UK, using money provided by Vote Leave over and above their official campaign expenditure.
In other words, Vote Leave used BeLeave as a conduit to circumvent the spending limits set by the Electoral Commission by giving them money, telling them how to spend it and then using the results for their own activities. Those are criminal offences and that they took place is no longer in dispute, even if it is being ignored by the UK Government. It has not, however, been ignored by the rest of the EU.
The EU saw the infringements of personal data protection committed by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and they saw how Leave campaigners bought information obtained through these infringements and used them, against electoral laws, to further their campaign outcomes. The rest of the EU saw what happened in the UK and are taking action to protect themselves from similar attacks ahead of the European Parliament elections. They are creating the sanctions necessary to deter and punish the kind of underhand tactics and they are empowering the officials and bodies needed to do so.
This is yet another excellent illustration of the folly and the tragedy of Brexit. The UK is leaving the EU because of a flawed referendum, where crimes were committed and skulduggery employed, just at the time when the rest of the EU is taking the necessary steps to prevent, or at the very least punish, a repeat of such attacks on our democracy.
Even as we watch Westminster with horror, my colleagues in the European Parliament and I continue to do our day jobs. With measures like these, we seek to improve our society and the lives of our citizens. Scotland deserves to be part of this.