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Britain must not turn its back on the Digital Single Market

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was, for some, the culmination of decades of campaigning and commitment. The vote occurred on the heels of the passage of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a cornerstone piece of legislation, itself the culmination of achingly piecemeal developments, that gave control over personal data back to the individual in a sequence of new codified rights. It is ironic then that Brexit should happen so soon after what was essentially the foundation of the Digital Single Market, given the UK was the Single Market’s most fervent advocate. How times change.

However, more important than the irony of the UK’s position, is the maintenance of Britain’s access to this strategic European initiative. The potential for growth is huge. The Digital Single Market aims to foster fertile conditions for European-based innovation that could have positive economic consequences for everyone, the UK included. Continued access to the Digital Single Market would create jobs, foster growth and add billions to the economy, both at home and abroad. Now is not the time to abandon the project.

Digitally speaking, Europe is still a maze of competing regimes. There are no fewer than 28 different sets of laws, rules and regulations that those seeking to do business must learn to navigate before they can start to buy and sell. This sends costs skywards. It costs an estimated €4 billion-8 billion extra per year for EU tech businesses to navigate the continent. This restricts innovation and stifles growth.

This is something that President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, understands. Continuing to deepen the Digital Single Market is something he vowed to champion when he took office – so far, progress has been slow at best. The UK should do everything it can to support the project. Of course, membership may not be straightforward.

The easiest approach would be the UK joining the EEA, but this has been ruled out by the Prime Minister. The UK could adopt the GDPR as its own national data protection legislation. The measure comes into force during 2018, before the UK leaves the EU, so all we need do is continue with the status quo. However this comes with its own obstacles – the UK would still need the EU to grant it “adequacy”, i.e. the recognition that the UK’s domestic data protection law offers the equivalent level of protection that the GDPR legislates for. This might require some political wrangling but upon receipt of “adequacy” then data can flow between the UK and the continent freely.

The internet and digital technologies are transforming our world, but existing barriers online traps growth, stymies innovation and prevents the internet companies and start-ups that are the future of business from thriving. The UK would be wise to do all in its power to support the continued development of the Digital Single Market. There are ways to do it; and everyone, within and without the EU, stands to benefit.

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