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18th Jan 2019

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EU telecom watchdog plan dead on arrival

  • Digital rights activists last year pleaded successfully with Berec to close loopholes in the EU's legislation on open internet (Photo: Arbeitskreis Vorratsdaten)

A European Commission proposal to upgrade a Riga-based forum of national telecommunications watchdogs into a more powerful EU agency lacks the required support in the European Parliament and member states, sources tell EUobserver.

“A majority of member states is reluctant to give more powers to Berec,” said a source close to the Council, the EU institution where representatives from the governments of member states meet.

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Berec is the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, established in 2010.

It is currently mostly an advisory organisation, but received praise last year from digital rights activists when it provided guidelines on how to interpret the EU's new network neutrality principle. Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers may not discriminate against or throttle competing services.

The Berec guidelines were hailed as closing perceived loopholes in EU legislation on the openness of the internet, which had worried digital activists.

Berec consists, somewhat confusingly, of Berec - which does not have the status of agency - and the Berec Office - which is an EU agency, but the smallest of its kind.

Last September, the commission proposed that the two entities should be merged and given the status of an EU agency.

The commission said Berec is receiving ever more tasks in the move towards a Digital Single Market in Europe.

"It seems appropriate and necessary to build on this experience by turning both together into a fully fledged agency," the proposal noted.

The EU executive also proposed that Berec's annual budget should be increased from around €4 million to some €14 million, and to increase its staff from 27 to 60.

The commission's plan can only become law if it receives the support from the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU, but both institutions are reluctant.

“I fully support the development of Digital Single Market,” Latvian MEP Krisjanis Karins told EUobserver in an e-mailed reply.

Karins follows the legislative file for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest group in the EU parliament.

“However, I do not think that by simply creating an EU agency is the way to do it. Creating an agency will not create the single market,” he added.

Status quo 'functioning well'

Czech MEP Evzen Tosenovsky, from the mildly eurosceptical European Conservatives and Reformists group, is also opposed.

Tosenovsky has written the draft text of parliament's desired version of the legislation, in which he deleted the commission's paragraphs that established Berec as an agency.

“Your rapporteur believes that institutional upheaval should be avoided except when absolutely necessary,” wrote Tosenovsky, adding that the status quo “is functioning well”.

A source close to the parliament's second-largest group, the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, said that it was, “in principle,” in favour of setting up an agency, because it could bring greater consistency across the EU, but that it depended on what powers and tasks would be granted to Berec.

Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas (Liberals) is not satisfied with the status quo, “in particular with the existing dual structure” of Berec and Berec Office, her assistant told EUobserver.

But Kallas would like the focus of the discussion to be on Berec's role, not whether it should be an agency or not.

With such half-hearted support, it seems unlikely that the idea will get the go-ahead from the parliament.

The two EPP and ECR groups, expressing clear opposition, could gather a majority with the three far-left and far-right groups, which are very sceptical of increasing EU centralisation of power.

“It seems there is no majority,” Austrian MEP Michel Reimon (Greens) told EUobserver.

He also said that if Berec could “coordinate and set common European rules and enforce them”, that was more important than its legal status.

Meanwhile, member states also are reluctant to share more sovereignty with an EU agency.

The German senate, the Polish senate, both houses of parliament in the Czech Republic, and the parliaments of Malta and Cyprus all formally expressed their opposition to the creation of a Berec agency.

Lobbying target

Even digital rights activists say that, although a centralised EU agency could reduce fragmentation, there are also downsides.

“A pan-European regulator would be the prime target of every telecom lobbyist on the continent,” said Thomas Lohninger, a digital rights activist.

“Right now Berec is a room of discussion,” the net neutrality activist told EUobserver recently at a digital rights conference in Brussels.

“Berec is the sphere where they agree on the common interpretation, and it's quite fact-based. If Berec's decisions had an immediate impact on the pockets of multi-billion companies, they would certainly pay more attention to it.”

Lohninger also assessed that it was “politically not very feasible right now to argue for a stronger centralisation of Europe”.

Previous attempts failed

It was not the first time that the commission has tried to set up a strong central agency to operate as a watchdog over EU telecommunications policy.

In 2007, the commission had originally proposed a centralised authority. As now, there was no majority for it.

One possible motive for the commission to try again, is that it wants more influence.

The draft regulation said the agency's management board would consist of one representative from each member state, and two from the EU commission. Each management board member would have voting rights.

Currently, the commission has one representative at the management committee of the Berec Office, which is mainly there to provide administrative support to Berec.

At Berec's current board of regulators, the commission can only attend as an observer.

Sweeping changes to EU telecoms market agreed

A ‘gentleman's agreement' on far-reaching changes to Europe's telecommunications sector between the three main institutions of the European Union was reached late on Monday, according to a spokesman for the European Commission.

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