Broadcasting rules bring new dramatic twist to digital single market talks

Tiemo Wölken stepped down as the lead MEP on a controversial broadcasting bill. “I think a digital Europe deserves better than this," he said. [European Parliament]

A rumble in the European Parliament has added a dramatic twist to frantic negotiations over the EU’s flagship digital single market proposals.

A humble majority of MEPs approved a bill to overhaul the EU’s broadcasting rules on Tuesday (12 December), with 344 votes in favour, 265 opposing the draft and 36 abstentions.

But the approval of the controversial bill set off an uproar in the Parliament’s plenary chamber in Strasbourg.

Tiemo Wölken, the German socialist MEP who authored the overhaul of the so-called satellite and cable directive, promptly announced that he will remove his name from the file and will not continue to represent the Parliament in negotiations with national governments and the European Commission.

“I think a digital Europe deserves better than this,” Wölken said after the vote.

Wölken said he had “never seen so much influence exerted by lobbies as on this file” and complained about other political groups adding changes to water down the original report.

The final version of the directive requires broadcasters to make online news programmes available for people to view online anywhere in the EU—but the MEPs removed proposals from Wölken and the Commission that would have broadened online access to films and other content across the bloc.

After Wölken told the plenary session that he will step down as the lead negotiator on the bill, Virginie Roziere, a French socialist MEP, took the floor to criticise the Commission for pressuring MEPs to vote against the Parliament’s report.

“It’s highly regrettable that a Commissioner, a vice-president of the Commission should deem it appropriate to write to members saying which way they should vote,” she said.

“It’s unacceptable that the Commission should try to get involved in decisions of this house,” Roziere added.

Andrus Ansip, the Commission vice-president in charge of its digital single market initiative, had made no secret of his disappointment with the Parliament’s changes to the Commission proposal, which he first presented last year.

Ansip sent out a flurry of tweets the day before the Parliament’s vote, urging MEPs to make more content available online across EU borders.

On Tuesday afternoon, he tweeted, “Today’s vote on #satcab #EPlenary is disappointing for people, creators, cultural diversity. Feels like we’re still in 20th century. With @GabrielMariya we will continue to strongly defend @EU_Commission‘s balanced, future-oriented proposal in trilogue negotiations.”

Legal Affairs MEPs approve watered down broadcasting rules

MEPs in the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) have approved a watered down version of an EU proposal that will regulate how much content broadcasters must show online.

The law can only go into effect once MEPs, national governments and the Commission agree on a final text.

But Wölken told EURACTIV he is “not very optimistic that the trilogues will improve what we adopted”.

A Commission spokeswoman said after the vote that “just giving access to news programmes across borders is likely not enough to answer people’s expectations, particularly the younger generations, with their viewing and listening habits.”

“More content available across the border also means great local content produced by broadcasters, children programmes, entertainment, etc.”

In a 2016 Eurobarometer survey, 19% of respondents said they use broadcasters’ online offers to stream movies and TV shows. Broadcasters’ online catch-up services are most popular in the UK, Finland and Estonia.

Private broadcasters have argued that the Commission’s proposal to make more content available across the EU would cut into their profits by forcing them to stop selling licenses by country. They were relieved by the Parliament’s softening of the rules.

“The European Parliament vote offers EU citizens a future full of quality TV.  It is a vote in support of the amount, quality and diversity of TV and movies available to viewers,” said Agnieszka Horak, policy director at the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, a lobby group that represents Sky, Canal + and other broadcasters.

The Commission has been amping up pressure on the Parliament and on national governments to speed up negotiations on digital single market files before its current term ends in 2019. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said he will not run for another term, and there is no guarantee that Ansip and Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel will hold on to their jobs under a new president.

Out of a total of 24 legislative proposals that the Commission announced as part of its flagship digital policy programme, negotiations have only wrapped up on seven files so far.

Juncker himself urged heads of state to pick up the pace on digital single market files during a European Council summit in September.

And while pressure is mounting on the Commission to leave its mark by pushing a slew of new tech laws over the finish line in the next one-and-a-half years, MEPs are still squabbling over a handful of contentious files.

Political fights like the back-and-forth over the broadcasting rules are becoming a trend. In October, the Parliament approved the controversial ePrivacy bill despite similar divisions between political groups.

Birgit Sippel, the German socialist in charge of the Parliament’s negotiations on the legislation, blasted what she called intense industry lobbying to influence the rules.

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