On Christmas Eve, the EU and UK announced that they had reached an agreement on their future relationship, which we expect to come into effect on 1 January 2021 (the “Brexit Deal”). Further details of the deal itself will be discussed by my colleagues on our Beyond Brexit blog, available here. And for the most part, the Brexit Deal does not deal with data protection specific issues.
However, for those data practitioners amongst us, you will know that the main area of concern related to Brexit has long been the issue of data transfers and whether or not the UK will be considered ‘adequate’ for GDPR purposes. In this respect, the Brexit Deal does throw a slightly unexpected lifeline of sorts.
The interim data transfer window
Article FINPROV.10A (Interim provision for transmission of personal data to the United Kingdom) provides for a four month window (which can be extended to six months) during which the UK will still not be treated as a ‘third country’ for GDPR purposes, thereby allowing the free flow of data from the EU and EEA Member States to the UK. So far so good, and many companies may be breathing a sigh of relief that the 31st December ‘cliff edge’ has been avoided. However, the interim data transfer window comes with strings attached.
The draft Brexit Deal makes it clear that the interim data transfer window will only remain open provided that the UK: (i) does not change its data protection laws from those in place on 31 December 2020 (i.e. the UK GDPR); and (ii) does not exercise any of its ‘designated powers’ without agreement from Europe. The ‘designated powers’ referred to are a relatively long shopping list of actions that the UK may not take with respect to international data transfers. For example, it may not publish its own set of ‘standard contractual clauses’ or approve a draft Code of Conduct with respect to international transfers of data. If the UK takes any such action without agreement from Europe, then the transfer window will automatically close (meaning the companies would need to put additional transfer mechanisms in place to legitimise the transfer of data from the EU to the UK). This appears to be a relatively significant restraint on the UK’s autonomy over its own laws in the pending post-Brexit world, although presumably a concession that the UK was willing to make given that it had always intended to effectively transpose the GDPR into UK domestic law.
Implications for adequacy
It is difficult at this stage to understand what the implications of the Brexit Deal could be for the ongoing adequacy assessment being undertaken by the European Commission. The establishment of an interim 4-6 month data transfer window could lead some to be cautiously optimistic that the European Commission simply needs a bit more time to dot its ‘i’s and cross its ‘t’s with respect to adequacy. However, the relatively long shopping list of actions that the UK is prevented from taking in the field of data protection in order to keep the data transfer window open for that 4-6 month period hints at a nervousness within the European Commission that the UK may move away from the principles of the GDPR in the future, something that could prevent an adequacy decision being granted in its favour. As a result, many companies may be left with the distinct impression that the deal is simply delaying the inevitable cliff edge when it comes to data transfers. The implications of not obtaining an adequacy decision are particularly concerning when considering the possible implications of the CJEU judgment in the Schrems II case earlier this year (for further details, please see our Schrems blog posts available here). So whilst the interim data transfer window provided by the Brexit Deal will likely be welcomed, there nonetheless remains an anxious wait to understand the European Commission’s position on the long-term adequacy of the UK in the eyes of data protection law.