New EU office in the Silicon Valley mulls Big Tech diplomacy – EURACTIV

One of the main tasks of the new EU office in San Francisco will be to keep relations with the US tech giants constructive rather than conflictual as new digital rules step in, a senior European Commission official said on Thursday (28 July).

The opening of the EU office in San Francisco was officially mentioned for the first time in the EU Council conclusions on EU Digital Diplomacy on 18 July, with the intention of “building contacts with authorities and stakeholders on the ground”.

The new office on the West Coast will open on 1 September and act as an ‘antenna’ of the EU delegation to the United States, which has the main office in Washington DC. It is the first time an EU delegation has opened a second office in the same country.

“It’s important to have a positive relationship between the regulator and the regulated,” the Commission’s Gerard de Graaf told reporters during a briefing. “I see it as our role is to try and facilitate the implementation and the compliance.”

De Graaf will be heading the new office. A Commission veteran, he was the director who oversaw the drafting and approval of the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, two flagship regulations that will enter into force later this year.

He stressed that the new EU delegation will not be only about Big Tech, as there are plenty of technological and regulatory developments happening on the West Coast that are of interest to the European Union.

Still, the timing indicates the office will play an important in the implementation of the upcoming legislation, as the European Commission will take up the role of the regulator for the EU’s internal market for the first time.

This role might be significant in the case of the DMA, which allows for a regulatory dialogue between the Commission and the large tech companies affected, the so-called gatekeepers, so that they better incorporate the new legal obligations into the way they operate.

Some of the DMA obligations touch upon the very business model of the companies concerned, de Graaf noted, making an example of operating systems that will have to open up to alternative app stores.

Therefore, he continued, the implementation will not just be a matter for lawyers but for strategic decisions on where these companies want to head. For these strategic discussions, the EU official is convinced that it is best to deal directly with the company’s headquarters.

While the Commission seems determined to prevent the atmosphere from turning sour, there is a general expectation that the new rules will be contested in court. De Graaf noted that he had had meetings with Big Tech companies attended by dozens of lawyers.

However, he explained that litigation is the norm when new rules come into play, and regulators must always expect their decisions are contested. To a certain extent, he added, litigation might even be beneficial for the regulator to clarify the new legal concepts.

De Graaf’s former position as director for digital transformation is currently vacant and it is not expected to be filled before the end of the year. De Graaf will move to San Francisco with his policy assistant Joanna Smolinska and hire two local agents.

The Irish Consulate General will host the EU officials for the first year until they set up their own office. The Commission director explained that in the beginning, the office will resemble a startup, kicking off small but with the possibility of expanding once it has shown its added value.

The new office is also expected to engage with Silicon Valley’s flourishing startup ecosystem, explore possible collaboration with the US in innovation programmes such as Horizon Europe and Digital Europe, and support the policy discussions in the context of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council.

In terms of policy discussions, the new office will also facilitate the dialogue with policymakers at the state level, which in de Graaf’s view, have acquired an even more critical role given that the political polarisation in Washington DC is blocking any legislative proposal.

Discussions are expected to take place with lawmakers from the states of California, Arizona, and Washington.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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