Without more forward looking political leadership and an ambitious Telecoms Single Market, the European digital single market will remain only a virtual reality.
Marietje Schaake is an MEP for the Dutch progressive liberal D66 party. She has been called the most wired politician in Europe.
The buzzword in Brussels continues to be the ‘digital single market’. Anticipation of the economic gains and the disruptive impact of technologies have made it even into Juncker’s speeches. In his election campaign video, he said “you don’t need to be a techie to believe in a Digital Single Market”. And although that may be the case, a strong Telecoms Single Market is an essential building block for the DSM. Techies and non-techies alike must appreciate what is at stake.
Looking only at the extremely disappointing proposals from the Council of Ministers could give the impression nothing needs to change in Europe. Yet the Council position is far removed from the election promises many leaders made, and even further away from what citizens want. Their demands for an end to the sky-high roaming charges, and calls to safeguard the open internet through ensuring net neutrality, fell on deaf ears in most Member States’ capitals. The European Parliament as well as Vice-President Ansip have their work carved out for them. The upcoming, tough negotiations on the Telecoms Single Market will give a hint of the challenges of creating a Digital Single Market.
Over the past 60 years the EU has managed to remove most physical barriers, to facilitate the free movement of goods and people. Paradoxically, the economic freedoms we have achieved offline stop when we move to the digital economy, a space that is usually defined by its lack of borders. Restrictions on the basis of one’s nationality or place of residence still exist online. Additionally, a vacuum has emerged in areas where technological developments have made existing laws outdated, or where no legal framework exists.
The digital economy also depends on the availability of reliable, high-speed and affordable fixed and mobile broadband networks throughout Europe. There are no good reasons to still have national telecom laws in this field, yet the prioritization of spectrum allocation as a key pillar of the Telecoms Single Market was removed from the European Council’s agenda all together. How will Europe successfully deploy 5G without enhanced coordination of spectrum assignments between Member States? Let us not forget that these networks do not only have an economic value; they are increasingly important for public access to information, freedom of expression, media pluralism and cultural and linguistic diversity.
The second pillar of the Telecoms Single Market is net neutrality. A principle based on which unprecedented innovation and economic activity in the digital age can be realized. It is needed to ensure fair competition, innovation and consumer protection in the digital economy. Clearly defined net neutrality ensures that all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application. We must avoid loopholes that would both invite lawyers of large firms to find ways around the principles of the law, and would also make it much harder for regulators to do their work. The third pillar is the ending roaming charges as soon as possible. To most Europeans, and certainly for European Parliament, this is a key priority.
Mixed messages coming from other Commissioners such as Oetinger, who called those calling for net neutrality ‘Taliban-like’ are not helpful. Perhaps a briefing by the US Federal Communications Commission can convince him the opposite is true. It might at least be a good reminder that the world will not wait for the EU to sort itself out. Our competitive position in the world will improve with a solid Digital Single Market.
Vice President of the Commission Ansip and the Parliament, especially the members of the intergroup on the Digital Agenda, are trying to build the economy of the future, and protect the open Internet. The ball is now clearly in the Member States’ court. Without more forward looking political leadership, ambitious building blocks such as reforms on VAT, parcel delivery, copyright, geo-blocking, and plans for a data economy that focuses on big data, cloud computing and the internet of things will not develop into a Digital Single Market. Without an ambitious Telecoms Single Market will remain only a virtual reality.