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Spain Given Hefty Fine for Shirking EU Privacy Rules

Member states slow to adopt EU rules are learning by way of Europe's highest court that there is some bite behind the European Commission’s bark.

(CN) — Europe's highest court on Thursday slapped a $18.3 million fine on Spain for failing to adopt European Union rules aimed at protecting personal data collected during police investigations.

After the EU adopted a set of regulations in 2016 to better protect personal data gathered by police and investigating authorities, member states were given until May 2018 to weave the rules into their national statutes. 

For Spain, however, this time coincided with political drama after Catalonia held a contentious independence referendum in October 2017, plunging the country into months of political crisis. The political upheaval was then compounded by a corruption scandal that brought down the ruling conservative People's Party. By May 2018, the Spanish parliament had not adopted the privacy rules.

In January 2019, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, gave Spain two months to adopt the rule or face fines. Once again, though, Spain was in the midst of political drama after a weak Socialist-led government called snap elections. The deadline was missed again.

After this second deadline was ignored, the commission pushed ahead to levy heavy fines against Spain. In 2017, the commission warned EU governments that it was going to take a harder line because nations were so bad at adopting EU rules.

Under the EU's system of laws, when EU regulations on everything from fuel standards to water quality are crafted by the bloc's transnational bodies based in Brussels, each EU member state then is required to pass national legislation to adopt those rules, which are typically called EU directives. In adopting directives, member states are given some leeway to craft the rules to their particular circumstances.

The court sided with the commission Thursday and imposed both a lump-sum fine and a daily penalty for each day that Spain doesn't adopt the rules. Spain now faces paying about $108,000 for each day of delay. This is the first time the court slapped a lump-sum payment and daily penalties at the same time on an EU government found failing to transpose EU rules.

The court rejected Spain's argument that its unstable political situation in 2019 prevented it from carrying out anything but day-to-day business.

“A Member State cannot rely on practices or circumstances existing in its internal legal order to justify its failure to comply with the obligations and time limits laid down by EU directives, nor therefore the late or incomplete implementation of directives,” the ruling states.

The ruling says the failure to adopt EU rules undermines the “optimal effectiveness of EU law” and must therefore “be regarded as definitely serious.”

It also says that the privacy rules were designed to establish “a strong and coherent framework for the protection of personal data” across the EU “in order to ensure respect for the fundamental right of protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data.”

“The absence or inadequacy, at national level, of rules guaranteeing the proper functioning of the area of freedom, security and justice within the European Union must be considered particularly serious in the light of its effects on public and private interests within the European Union,” the ruling says.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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