In the spring of 2014 the EP adopted an excellent resolution, calling for an end to roaming charges in the EU, for net neutrality to be guaranteed by law, and for Europe-wide standardisation of the management of the radio frequency spectrum.
The end of roaming and just before the summer holidays – it was a wonderful resolution and so easy to sell – three months before the EU elections.
On the day after the elections, the telecommunications companies, the conservatives and EU Commissioner Oettinger started to bulldoze this resolution. The implementation was subject to an agreement with the governments and they sided with their telecommunications corporations. The fact that mainly Spain, Great Britain and Germany stood firm is not surprising. We were, in effect, negotiating with Telefonica, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom. But Telekom Austria didn’t pull any punches either while lobbying against Austrians MPs. I was nominated to negotiate on behalf of the Greens and I was contacted for the first time practically on the day I was sworn in.
The negotiations dragged on for months, with absolutely unacceptable proposals by the governments (e.g. five minutes of free roaming seven days a year!!!) leading to a situation where we were getting nowhere fast. The Presidency of the Council negotiates on behalf of the governments and this changes every six months. So now we have negotiated with the Latvians in the first half of 2015 and, with effect from 1 July, the Luxembourgers would have been responsible. I tried to salvage the talks with a view to reopening the negotiations after this date.
The conservatives (EPP) and the conservative right wing (ECR) tried to enforce the deal, with huge support from Oettinger’s staff (he himself was never present) and the Latvians.
A final round of talks was scheduled for yesterday and should have lasted from 13:00 to 16:00 hours. In the end – including many breaks – it took 13 hours. Several times we were on the verge of abandoning the talks and reconvening with the Luxembourgers but the social democrats kept allowing themselves to be persuaded to continue the negotiations. We were being confronted with new proposals, often informal or even incomplete, with the last ones arriving in writing at 22:00 hours. Then there were long breaks to read the proposals, individual conversations, private negotiations of parliamentary groups (five parliamentary groups were present, the Left and EFDD simply didn’t turn up, and the right-wing extremists hadn’t been invited). As the clock struck 24:00 hours, it was clear that there was no way that the liberals and Greens would sign up, and the two conservative groups were concentrating on the social democrats. There was no longer any translation, no printouts of new versions, and everyone was exhausted. At 1:30 we came within an inch of abandoning and postponing the negotiations. At 2:08 the S&D negotiators consented. The majority vote was carried.
(Update: the liberals have evidently changed their minds this morning. They are now issuing press releases in which they are claiming the credit for the abolition of roaming. That must have been at a different meeting.)
This will completely annihilate the excellent position on the telecommunications market adopted by the EP in the 2014 resolution.
1. Roaming will be formally abolished in the middle of 2017. But subject to a “fair use” ruling. I do not yet have an electronic copy of the exact definition of “fair” agreed by the three parties. Ultimately it will take the form of an average calculated on the basis of the normal pattern of travel of an EU citizen (not the individual average of a customer).
But that is not all: the providers will be allowed to introduce surcharges for the reimbursement of costs to protect their domestic prices but – on paper – only if this is necessary. However, the burden of proof, if necessary, will not lie with the companies but with the national authorities. So the telecommunications company would introduce a surcharge and the governments could then try to prove that it isn’t necessary. The very governments which fought to save the roaming charges. It is ridiculous.
So we get a blanket abolition at EU level and a patchwork quilt of national exceptions. The new era of abolition will now be heralded in all the media for days on end but for the majority of Europeans it will never arrive. There will simply be a different charge on the bill instead of the roaming charge.
2. To put it much more dramatically: net neutrality is dead. The providers are allowed to offer preferential specialised services in the infrastructure of the Internet and charge for them separately. The solution is worthy of a George Orwell novel: we now have an “open Internet” which will remain neutral. And in the same infrastructure “specialised services” which are given preferential treatment. In the negotiations not one single party could name an application which needs these specialised services and which does not already exist. In actual fact, it is about changing the status of film, TV and music streaming and voice telephony services and charging for them as additional services, generating (a share in) earnings for the telecommunications companies.
The USA has enacted legislation to guarantee net neutrality because it is of benefit to small start-ups and supports freedom of expression. Europe is abolishing it – and this is the first step on the way to the new Digital Single Market which Günther Oettinger wants to establish.
3. The joint Europe-wide management of the radio spectrum, which is needed for a modern technical organisation, was sacrificed by the Parliament without asking for anything in return. The national governments will continue to operate the spectrum as their allotments.
So this package, driven forward by the mainstream party and the conservative right wing, also won the approval of the social democrats shortly after 2 o’clock in the morning.
Naturally, these three parties have a majority in the body of the house but it can be overturned. In the lead-up to the vote – which will presumably be in the autumn – there is now a need for the public with an interest in network policy to lobby intensely, especially with a view to influencing those on the left.
I recommend Save the Internet as a first point of contact!
We have lost an important battle but we have not yet lost the war. We need to try to salvage what we can, at least with regard to net neutrality.