The European Commission is set to launch a substantial review of rules governing personal documents with the aim of making electronic identities take off across the EU. But the proposal faces likely opposition from civil rights groups and member states where identity cards do not exist.
Neelie Kroes, the EU’s Digital Agenda Commissioner, will present by the beginning of June a new legislative proposal which aims “to facilitate cross-border electronic transactions” through the adoption of harmonised e-signatures, e-identities and electronic authentication services (eIAS) across EU member states, according to an internal document seen by EurActiv.
“A clear regulatory environment for eIAS would boost user convenience, trust and confidence in the digital world,” reads the paper. “This will increase the availability of cross-border and cross-sector eIAS and stimulate the take up of cross-border electronic transactions in all sectors.”
Brussels has long been trying to facilitate the emergence of a parallel system of electronic identification, on top of the the real-world existing documents. This has mainly been linked to the struggle for establishing a truly functioning single market, rather than on security grounds.
A directive was adopted in 1999 establishing a common framework for electronic signatures. The rationale for the legal text is that if EU citizens feel comfortable in signing documents online, they will increasingly move to the immaterial world of the e-commerce to do business and shopping, regardless of national borders.
Resistance expected at national level
Despite the EU’s efforts to increase the security of e-signatures and the confidence in the emergence of virtual identities, citizens and governments have been slow to adopt electronic IDs.
Indeed, e-signatures are still confined to a few sectors, such as universities, while most EU nations have not yet introduced electronic identity cards.
Even if chip-embedded passports are becoming the norm across Europe, e-ID cards have been adopted in only in a handful of countries – Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. But there is no common system of mutual recognition among states using electronic IDs.
Perhaps more frustrating for the European Commission is that some member states like the United Kingdom do not even have paper identity cards, and the idea of adopting them causes widespread public opposition.
The UK briefly introduced ID cards during the second world war but abolished them afterwards. The use that the Nazi regime made of identity documents to single out Jewish people and send them into concentration camps has been a powerful argument against introducing ID documents across the Channel.
When Tony Blair’s Labour government discussed the idea of ID cards, a citizen movement sprang up overnight to block the plans. ID cards are also not used in Denmark and Ireland.
A bolder plan beyond e-signatures
Despite those cultural differences, Brussels still has the intention of moving ahead and a draft regulation is being examined in the Commission’s several departments in so-called inter-service consultation.
The plan, to be unveiled in the coming days, is even more ambitious than the Commission’s previous legislative attempt, as Brussels now wants to extend the electronic authentication to a number of services, beyond e-signatures.
Kroes plans to “widen the scope of the current Directive by including also ancillary authentication services that complement e-signatures, like electronic seals, time/date stamps, etc,” reads an internal paper prepared by her cabinet.
To address the lack of mutual recognition of electronic certificates, Brussels wants to make it compulsory. “It is proposed that all member states recognise and accept all formally notified e-IDs from other EU member states,” underlines the paper.
The proposal does not go as far as proposing the introduction of electronic documents where they do not exist, but the obvious aim is to create an incentive for countries to do it.