Instead, EU member states' representatives at the EU Council of Ministers agreed a joint position for them to approve individually at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), taking place on 3-14 December in Dubai.
The development will increase doubts about how some of the key decisions will fall at the critical conference as the EU's common interest - which the European Commission is supposed to embody - will effectively not be represented.
The decision, agreed by the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday (29 November), was kept out of the EU’s official journal, since it includes details of the bloc’s preferred negotiating stance.
EU diplomatic sources confirmed to EurActiv, however, that the Commission was given a secondary role by the Council.
Commission threatens legal action
Even this role – which would not involve more than offering advice behind the scenes at the conference – is subject to the conference organiser, the UN-backed International Telecommunications Union, admitting the EU as an observer at WCIT.
Commission representatives attached an official statement to the decision regretting the Council’s action “insofar as it largely disregards the role of the Commission in external representation”, claiming the decision breaches treaty provisions, and reserving the right “to make use of all legal means at its disposal”.
WCIT is set to make decisions that could affect the control governments wield over the internet and potentially also open the door for the telecommunications industry to levy charges on internet companies such as Google for their use of broadband capacity.
Previous changes to the treaty administered by the International Telecommunication Union took place in 1988, before the internet had been properly developed and telecommunications was highly regulated and analogue based.
Much media speculation has centred on attempts by countries such as Russia to use the telecommunications regulations as a way of bolstering government control over the internet.
The most sensitive issues surround potential changes to payments for the internet, especially a proposal that network operators be permitted to assess charges for content providers like Internet video companies that use a lot of bandwidth.
The proposal was originally tabled by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) – interest groups are permitted to table proposed treaty changes at WCIT.
Voting positions unclear ahead of WCIT
It was picked up by a group of Arab states however and it remains unclear in advance of the conference how the suggestion, and other controversial parts of the negotiations, will fall.
In order for treaty changes to be adopted a simple majority of the ITU member states (there are 193) must vote for them.
The US strongly opposes the original ETNO proposal, whilst the European Council’s joint position is nuanced. It says that member states: “Do not support any proposals insofar as they may affect EU common rules or alter their scope, or introduce obligations on operators which go beyond those already provided for.”
On the face of it this would suggest strong opposition, although there is no explicit opposition to the relevant clause. Meanwhile there is little clarity about how other countries – especially key players such as China and India – intend to cast their votes at WCIT.