A fresh fight is brewing over the European Commission’s plans to turn a group of national telecoms regulators into a full-blown EU agency, with several top watchdogs saying the move will compromise their independence and give Brussels too much power.
Some observers say they are reminded of the Commission’s past attempts to sweep authority away from national regulators: the executive has tried before to corral the group of watchdogs into a central EU agency whose powers could have been vetoed by the executive.
But national governments killed that bid in 2009. Measures to beef up the group of regulators were also taken out of another telecoms bill last year.
Now, the EU executive is taking another stab at setting up an agency and promising the regulators a 75% budget increase.
National telecoms regulators would also get more power under the new proposal and be able to block measures in other EU countries—if they agree with the Commission to use a so-called double-lock veto.
But even the promise of money and power has not won over the regulators. Several watchdogs in charge of monitoring telecoms markets in EU countries are pushing back against the Commission’s plans to absorb them into an EU agency.
They argue the proposal would force them to answer to the executive and make it awkward to publicly disagree with Commission decisions, sources told EurActiv.com.
The regulators have disagreed with the Commission before and warned the executive last month that its high-profile plan to get rid of mobile roaming fees could hurt smaller telecoms operators.
Telecoms watchdogs warn that the Commission plans would make BEREC, the umbrella group of regulators, more like ACER, the EU agency that was set up in 2009 to bring together energy regulators from member countries.
“If you turn BEREC into the ACER agency that would in the end strengthen the influence of the European Commission,” said Wilhelm Eschweiler, the 2016 chair of BEREC and vice president of Germany’s telecoms regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur.
The Bundesnetzagentur also monitors Germany’s energy and rail suppliers. Eschweiler argues the agency idea doesn’t translate because the telecoms sector is more divided between EU countries than energy.
“The flexibility is not as huge as people think. There is a framework, there are limits. But markets are so different, so you need flexibility from the national side,” Eschweiler said.
The Commission wants to create a new role of executive director at the top of BEREC, which would be an official on the Commission’s payroll. The director would not get to vote in the new EU agency’s decisions—but the Commission would have two votes along with the twenty-eight from national regulators.
Günther Oettinger, the EU commissioner in charge of telecoms policy, told a room full of regulators at BEREC’s annual conference last month that the national watchdogs should have “common competencies exercised in full independence of economic and political influence”.
“We also believe there’s a European interest in those common [..] competencies being exercised consistently. A reformed BEREC could be the best guarantee of that,” the German commissioner added.
One Commission official described telecoms regulators as “kind of conservative” types who “want to preserve the status quo”.
Negotiations over the plans to turn BEREC into a full-fledged EU agency – its small, Riga-based administrative office already counts as one, although national regulators are not part of the agency – could now be held up by critics of the Commission’s plan.
National governments may side with their telecoms regulators who do not want to see a change. Last week, the bill was handed to a conservative MEP from the ECR group to shepherd it through the European Parliament. Some MEPs from the group have spoken out against the proposal to transform BEREC. Last year, conservatives in the Parliament’s budgetary control committee voted against approving BEREC’s 2013 budget of €3.5 million.
The Commission estimates that BEREC’s budget will climb to €7.5 million by 2020 after it’s turned into an agency. The number of its employees is also set to rise from 22 next year to 60 in 2022.
Czech MEP Evzen Tosenovsky, the new rapporteur in charge of the bill, told EurActiv he would be “cautious” in deciding “where the setting of BEREC’s office could be improved and whether the existing bottom-up BEREC structure needs to be transformed into the agency with stronger involvement of the Commission”.
Some observers are skeptical the Commission will be able to get the Parliament and national governments to agree to turning BEREC into an agency.
“Becoming an agency is a proposal, not a decision,” Sharon White, the chief executive of British telecoms regulator Ofcom, said at a BEREC conference last month.
“BEREC works very effectively in its current constitution as a network, not an agency,” she said.
White told the conference that Ofcom will “continue to be as involved in Europe as it is today” after the UK leaves the EU because it regulates telecoms companies that also operate in other European countries.
BEREC, the umbrella network of telecoms regulators from EU countries, was set up in 2009. Then-digital commissioner Viviane Reding originally proposed a centralised EU agency to regulate telecoms, but national governments were against the idea.
BEREC's small Riga-based office is an official EU agency, but regulators are independent from it. The European Commission proposed in September 2016 to turn BEREC into an agency that would have an increased budget and staff size as well as more binding voting rights to block regulatory measures in other EU countries.