The incoming Italian presidency of the European Union is ready to support the European Parliament-backed overhaul of EU telecoms rules, despite widespread criticism of the plan from governments and leading operators.
"No proposal is perfect, but the timing is tight," said Italy's deputy permanent representative at the EU, Marco Peronaci. He was speaking on telecoms reform at a conference organised this week in Brussels by ETNO, the association of European main telecoms operators.
"We understand the concerns of the industry but we still think that it deserves a serious look," he added in a sign of his intent to help steer the parliament text through the EU Council.
Several member states have echoed industry's concerns, and have indicated that the text approved in the parliament will not be accepted in the council.
Italy, whose presidency of the EU will start in July and will run until the end of the year, seems ready to go against the tide of other member states.
A diplomatic source confirmed that the objective of the incoming presidency is to defend the parliament's text and have it approved by the council.
Peronaci did not give a timing for the adoption of the text in the council and did not rule out further changes to the original proposal. He underlined that it is important that "we do not stop the process of negotiations."
Industry on the barricades
Italy's position may change, as the government of Matteo Renzi is yet to nominate someone responsible for telecoms issues within the executive. The competence falls in the ministry for economic development, but no one has been formally appointed to do the job yet, more than two months after the new government took office.
The deputy minister for economic development, Antonello Giacomelli, is expected to take this role.Whether the appointment will change the initial Italian position is to be seen.
The country holding the presidency of the EU can steer the debate and is instrumental in finding compromises, but it cannot impose deals.
The telecoms industry confirmed its strong criticism of the existing text. ETNO chairman Luigi Gambardella called for a "new digital agenda for Europe."
The most controversial part of the reforms concern net neutrality, the freedom for Internet users to access different services without seeing their connections slowed down to favour alternative paid offers.
The parliament approved a text that preserves net neutrality to a greater extent than the European Commission's original proposal. However, the adopted amendments pose a risk of damaging innovation, as companies may be prevented or lose appetite for launching new offers.
"While we all need to preserve and foster the openness of the Internet, we cannot do it by killing innovation and by hampering the efforts to improve network quality," Gambardella said during the ETNO event on Wednesday (30 April).
Top telecoms operators are also lobbying hard to have a freer hand to merge. They argue this will make European champions stronger and able to compete on the global stage. It will also favour investment in key telecoms infrastructure, such as the fibre networks, industry said.
Easier mergers can also mean less competition and possibly higher prices for consumers. The commission has so far spoken in favour of cross-border mergers, but been wary about consolidation at national level.
The roaming premium fees imposed on consumers for many years have provided fat profits to operators but have rarely turned into higher investment, industry critics argue.
In the coming days, the commission is expected to announce its decision on the investigation of the planned merger between the German division of Telefonica and E-Plus, an operation affecting the domestic telecoms market in Germany and with little cross-border impact. The outcome could indicate how the commission plans to proceed in the future.
- 1 July 2014: Beginning of Italian presidency of the EU