24th Mar 2018


Suddenly, digital single market doesn't 'need' EU agency

  • According to the European Commission, the digital single market can create some €415 billion in extra annual economic growth (Photo: European Commission)

European commissioner for the digital economy Mariya Gabriel on Monday (4 December) downplayed the importance of the rejected commission idea for a strong EU telecommunications watchdog - denying that the plan was essential for the future success of the digital single market.

"The digital single market goes beyond any particular piece of legislation or any particular member state, or any particular institution," Gabriel said at a press conference in Brussels, after meeting with telecommunications ministers on Monday.

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  • EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel (r) at the press conference with Estonian telecommunications minister Urve Palo (Photo: Council of the European Union)

During that meeting, ministers adopted a position on the European Commission's legislative proposal on the future mandate of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication (Berec).

The commission proposed to transform Berec into a powerful EU agency, but the ministers decided that they wanted to keep much of the status quo, with power concentrated at the level of national telecommunications watchdogs.

Gabriel told the ministers in the meeting, broadcast online, that the commission "would have wanted a greater political ambition".

"If we want to have a telecoms single market, it is essential that the rules be applied in a coherent and consistent way.

"In order to achieve this, we need an effective, transparent and responsible agency. This is what we need if we want to achieve successfully this telecoms single market," she said.

At the ensuing press conference, Gabriel however rejected the suggestion that she had implied that the digital single market can only be a success if Berec received the stronger mandate proposed by the commission.

"No, the digital single market is a number of legislative proposals," she said.

The Bulgarian commissioner then went on to list several of them, like proposals on the free flow of non-personal data, cybersecurity, e-privacy, and copyright, saying there had been an "enormous amount of progress there".

"But there is no huge obstacle," she said, referring to the rejection of the idea of a strong Berec agency.

"We just stay very constructive and open for the future negotiation."

A commission spokeswoman on Monday evening said by email that Gabriel had not meant that the success of the digital single market was conditional on Berec becoming a fully-fledged EU agency.

Status quo caused 'ambiguity'

But that was not quite what the proposal, published in September 2016, suggested.

Currently, there is a Berec Office – the EU's smallest agency – and a forum of national telecoms regulators called Berec, which has no legal personality.

"This structure has proven its limits," the commission said in its original legislative proposal.

"It did not prevent ambiguity in the implementation of Union rules and it has not succeeded in overcoming the administrative burden any agency despite its size is confronted with," the text went on.

"The aim [of the proposal] is to transform Berec into a fully-fledged agency … capable of contributing to the better functioning of the internal market for electronic communications networks and services, including in particular the development of cross-border electronic communications services, and of effectively carrying out the tasks assigned to it."

The commission also said in the 2016 text that it was "necessary" to merge Berec and the Berec Office "into a fully-fledged agency".

On Tuesday, the commission said in its daily newsletter that it "regret[ted]" that the ministers decided to stick to the status quo.

Ministers will begin discussing the file with the European Parliament on Wednesday (6 December), together with another set of rules for telecommunications companies. MEPs also want much to remain the same and are equally opposed to "institutional upheaval".

In its press release, the commission said it still had "trust" that the negotiators "will all agree to equip Berec with the necessary tools to play a leading role in fostering the digital single market throughout the EU".

When is the digital single market complete?

The exercise showed the challenges the European Commission faces. It needs approval for its proposals by ministers and MEPs before they can become law.

However, it uses language which suggest specific outcomes.

Using the phrase 'digital single market' gives the impression that this is a destination to be reached, rather than an ongoing process.

The commission's communication efforts give the impression that once several boxes are ticked, and only then, there will be a digital single market.

Haziness galore

The same holds for other big commission projects, like the Energy Union, or the Capital Markets Union. But those projects too lack deadlines and clear definitions.

After the presentation of the Capital Markets Union in September 2015, a commission official told this website that there will never be "a single thing that kind of encapsulates" when the Capital Markets Union will be completed.

"If you're a business somewhere in, like, Latvia or Lithuania, and you wake up one day and suddenly you can get some finance that you wouldn't have been able to get the year before, then that would be for you I guess, Capital Markets Union," the source said at the time.

Similarly haziness became apparent six months earlier, in March 2015, at a presentation on the Energy Union.

"You cannot say at some point in the future, this is the date the Energy Union will be established, it's not like [border-free area] Schengen or when we introduced the euro. It is a process," another commission official said then.

Like with the energy and capital markets projects, the digital single market will be made up of elements that are politically feasible, rather than what is economically or societally necessary.

EU unveils '€415bn' digital strategy

Its blueprint foresees €415bn/yr in additional growth. But it's not the first time the EU commission has made big promises on the digital market.

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