Sunday

17th Feb 2019

EU states and MEPs in deadlock on roaming, internet rules

  • Governments suggest abolishing roaming by 15 June 2018 (Photo: Matthew Kenwrick)

European telecoms ministers will sit down for breakfast next Friday (12 June) to discuss the deadlock in negotiations with the European Parliament on roaming surcharges and new rules on an open internet.

The topic has been added to the agenda after representatives of national governments and MEPs on Tuesday (2 June) failed to conclude talks in Brussels. The ministers will be joined by digital commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

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  • What is net neutrality anyway? (Photo: Ken Hawkins)

The two sides are still far from agreeing on a date by which roaming surcharges - added to your phone bill when you make calls in another country - should be abolished for intra-EU travel.

A spokesperson for the European Commission, which mediated the talks, said on Wednesday that “the latest discussion ... showed further convergence”.

British Conservative MEP Vicky Ford said “we made good progress”, but her Austrian Green colleague Michel Reimon told this website “we agreed on nothing”.

The European Parliament has promised that roaming surcharges would be abolished by December 2015.

When negotiations between the EP and the member states began in March, the latter only wanted to oblige telecom providers to give customers a “basic roaming allowance”. Providers would keep the option of adding a surcharge after people have used up their 'holiday data'.

Last Friday, the member states agreed on a new bargaining position: abolishing roaming by 15 June 2018.

That is still too far away for many MEPs.

In a speech on Monday, the EU's digital commissioner Andrus Ansip repeated his call for “an end-date for roaming, and a convincing roadmap to get us there”.

“Customers must have tangible benefits that they can feel as of now, not X years from now”, said the Estonian former prime minister.

He also said there should be “clear open internet rules that allow for innovation but guarantee equal treatment”.

Open internet rules refers to how to enshrine in EU law the principle of network neutrality, which would guarantee that equal types of data are treated equally.

However, the EP and countries have not yet agreed on a common definition.

The European Parliament wants network neutrality to mean “that [internet] traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.”

The member states' version of the text is more vague, and according to some parliament sources contains loopholes.

According to another EU source, the parliament is more divided on net neutrality than on roaming.

However, that contact, as well as others, do not see the two issues being split.

“It's a package”, said MEP Reimon. “We have to ask for both.”

The Austrian said that there “is no logical reason to connect the two”, but since they are, it helps MEPs to keep a common front. If one of the two issues is watered down too much, the parliamentary majority will probably be lost on both.

“Some groups don't want to compromise at all, but that's not fair play”, said on EP source. “It's not an all-or-nothing game here.”

Still, it is difficult to compromise on network neutrality, said the left-wing deputy Reimon.

“There are MEPs who see it as a technical issue. For me, it is a black and white issue, about freedom of speech.”

Latvia, which holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, is keen on closing the file before the end of the month, when they hand over the reins to Luxembourg.

“We are still thinking that the Latvian presidency might do it”, a diplomatic source told this website.

“Parliament will not settle” on anything less than “abolishing roaming charges by a certain date”, he noted, adding that the member states too “want a deal”.

Reimon is less optimistic, and said there is a “good chance” the file will not be concluded before the summer break, which means it can be concluded in earnest in September or October. In that case, the end of roaming will de facto be delayed to a later date.

A date for the next talks on roaming will be decided in mid-June, after the ministerial meeting. A diplomatic source told this website it will “most likely” take place in the last week of June.

The jammed talks are a bad omen for the commission, which in May proposed a new digital single market strategy.

“If Europe cannot agree on roaming, the rest of the digital single market proposals will certainly fall short”, wrote Vivian Reding, a former commissioner and currently a centre-right MEP, in an opinion piece Tuesday.

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