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8th Aug 2020

EP sticks to compromise rules on roaming and net neutrality

  • EU digital chief Ansip, with some of his colleagues accessing the Internet behind him. "It is a good deal for Europe" (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament on Tuesday (27 October) decided to stick with a compromise deal on roaming surcharges and Internet rules, giving it final approval, rather than risk reopening lengthy negotiations by adopting changes to the proposed legislation.

All of the amendments tabled by MEPs concerned with what they dubbed 'loopholes' in the legal text, were rejected in a vote on Tuesday afternoon. The amendments received support from between 160 and 230 MEPs at the 751-MEP plenary session in Strasbourg.

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  • The deal was agreed before the summer break between negotiators on behalf of the EP and the EU's national governments. (Photo: European Parliament / Pietro Naj-Oleari)

Germany's Pirate Party representative, Julia Reda, member of the Green group, wrote in a social media message that she saw the amendments were supported by “mostly” MEPs from the left-wing of the political spectrum.

At Tuesday morning's plenary debate, there were already clear signs that the major political groups would support the deal, which was agreed before the summer break between negotiators on behalf of the EP and the EU's national governments.

“We've managed to achieve the goal we set from the outset: abolishing roaming”, said Spanish centre-right MEP Pilar del Castillo Vera, referring to the surcharges that telecom operators add to phone bills when mobile phone users call or connect to the Internet when abroad.

Del Castillo was the chief negotiator on behalf of the EP.

“We managed to set out the requisite guarantees so that all internet traffic – and I stress all internet traffic – is treated equally”, added the Spanish politician, referring to the principle called net neutrality.

Her Danish colleague from the centre-right group, Bendt Bendtsen, noted that the compromise deal on the regulation, which will directly apply to the whole EU, was an improvement on the current situation.

“I can hear that not everyone is happy with the net neutrality results. … This is the first time we have a safeguard in legislation”, noted Bendtsen.

Italian centre-left MEP Nicola Danti said the new rules were a “step forward”, noting: "We should be satisfied with it.”

Another Dane, Liberal Jens Rohde, said that while he would have liked more safeguards, the regulation is “a big step ahead”. “If this agreement is not adopted, we have nothing in Europe”, noted Rohde.

Change, and risk delays

Their comments followed a speech by the EU's digital commissioner Andrus Ansip, who said European citizens “have [been] waiting for a long time for this” and urged MEPs to vote in favour of the compromise without amending it.

If the EP had amended the text, the changes would have needed approval from national governments. In that case, the more likely scenario would have been further negotiations.

“There is no justification for any further delay”, said the former prime minister of Estonia, adding later: “Any change now would create a real risk of delays that could be not only months but years.”

Both the European Parliament and the Commission had promised European voters that roaming surcharges would end by December 2015, a promise that they have had to break.

The new rules will see the end of roaming surcharges by mid-2017, although there are justified concerns that this date is conditional because it depends on additional steps by the European Commission and telecom regulators.

Those who read between the lines also heard Ansip arguing that by offering European citizens an end to the loathed roaming surcharges, the European Union could show citizens a much-needed success story, amidst growing euroscepticism among voters.

Adoption of the deal “will show the Union can deliver tangible results. Failure will have an opposite and demoralising effect”, noted Ansip.

“You now have the deal in your hands. It is a good deal for Europe and Europeans”, said Ansip.

This narrative proved effective with many MEPs.

British Labour MEP Theresa Griffin, for example, whose country will in the near future have a vote on whether to stay in the EU, noted the new rules would end “outrageous phone bills”.

“This is yet another reason why the EU benefits us in Britain and why the UK is stronger in the European Union”, said Griffin.

Net neutrality or no neutrality, that is the question

As for the second part of the legislation - concerning the rules on net neutrality - the debate on Tuesday morning might as well have taken place in two parallel universes.

In one universe, where most MEPs from the centre-right EPP and ECR, and the centre-left socialist groups dwell, the agreed text will guarantee that the Internet will keep its open character. In the other universe, MEPs believed the opposite to be the case.

“The text is very clear. Providers of internet access services will not be able to discriminate, block, etcetera, content or services of different categories”, said Austrian centre-right MEP Paul Ruebig.

British Conservative member Vicky Ford said the “new rules do guarantee net neutrality”, Del Castillo Vera said there will be no “two-speed Internet”, while Finnish centre-right MEP Henna Virkkunnen said the “EU will be the first to implement net neutrality in the world” (which is incorrect – Chile was the first).

But several left-wing MEPs said the text is “ambiguous”, and noted that in the entire text there is no mention of the phrase 'net neutrality' nor is there a definition for it.

“We don't have agreed rights if there is ambiguity”, said Portuguese far left MEP Marisa Matias, while her colleague from the Italian Five Star Movement, Dario Tamburrano, said the new regulation “is not actually going to produce real net neutrality”.

These left-wing politicians echoed the concerns voiced over the past week by several Internet experts from outside the EP's Strasbourg building.

On Monday, the inventor of one of the Internet's most popular features, the World Wide Web, called on MEPs to adopt the amendments.

“If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy”, Tim Berners-Lee wrote in a statement.

But the appeal from the Briton was to no avail. The next step is formal adoption by the Council, representing member states, but no changes are expected from that body.

EU telecom watchdog plan dead on arrival

The European Commission wants to upgrade the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications into an agency, but both the parliament and member states are against it.

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