After three years of negotiations, the proposals to overhaul Europe’s critical telecoms rules could come to nothing, with political power blocks seemingly deadlocked.
The so-called Telco Package has been shorn of many of its original proposals and has now been whittled down to just two major issues: net neutrality and roaming charges.
On Tuesday night, representatives of member states sat down with the European Parliament and the European Commission and assumed battle positions agreed to disagree.
Last year, the parliament approved its version of the draft law, including abolishing costly roaming charges for consumers and encouraging strong net neutrality rules.
However, national negotiators in the Council of the European Union have ripped the soul out of both plans with their latest available version of the text and managed to alienate almost everyone with a stake.
Members of the European Parliament want roaming abolished by the end of this year, but Council members will agree to mid-2018 at the earliest. Some MEPs are reportedly insulted with the desultory “compromise” offered by the Council.
European Commission digi-veep Andrus Ansip said on Monday: “Despite EU heads of state themselves agreeing – a long time ago – on the significance, ambition and urgency of creating a single European telecoms market, it still has not happened."
"What is needed now is an end-date for roaming, and a convincing roadmap to get us there. Customers must have tangible benefits that they can feel as of now, not X years from now," he added.
On the net neutrality issue, he said: “We need clear open internet rules that allow for innovation but guarantee equal treatment.” However, he will have been left disappointed by the stalemate on Tuesday night, with no side prepared to budge.
Digital right groups EDRi and Access urged MEPs to stay strong: “You made the promise to deliver net neutrality. Do not succumb to pressure. History is on your side. Citizens are on your side.”
“For the past few months, the Council has proposed a string of virtually identical compromise texts in an effort to reach an agreement with the European Parliament and the Commission," continued the joint statement from the two groups.
"In this process, the European Commission made it clear that it was ready to accept any deal, for the sake of closing negotiations. The Parliament has so far resisted the ever-increasing pressure from the Council to approve proposals that not only make little sense, but which would also deliver the complete opposite of what the Parliament adopted by large majority in April 2014,” added the statement.
Consumer groups have, unsurprisingly, weighed in on the roaming charges issue and even set up a petition.
MEP and former EU Commissioner Viviane Reding said: “It is high time for the general interest of the people to prevail over the private interests of telecom companies. National leaders mistakenly believe roaming fees are a 'win-win' situation. Their small ambitions yield even smaller results.”
Some Brussels insiders believe that the Council representing the member states was hoping to use leverage in one area to get what it wants in another: a view borne out by the nearly identical “revised” versions of the text that it has released as a “compromise”.
However, Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake said that although negotiations were tough, it should not be an 'either/or' scenario between net neutrality and an end to roaming charges, arguing both were important.
Non-profit organisation the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) pointed out some of the flaws in the net neutrality proposals: “While there may be particular circumstances in which a network operator needs to depart from that principle – such as during periods of congestion – that departure should be the exception, not the norm."
"The Parliament text limited differentiated treatment of 'specific categories or entire classes of traffic' to specific legal compliance or network management purposes. The Council text, however, makes type-based discrimination a broadly acceptable practice even in the absence of congestion or certain limitations of specific technologies," it added.
However, we may be passed the point of negotiating specific parts of the text as the whole law may be torn up and started again.
Austrian MEP Jörg Leichtfried said this would be a mistake and that his parliamentary group wanted to quickly get rid of roaming, suggesting that “I think there is a possibility if we can talk to the [national] ministers involved rather than the bureaucrats”.
He added that having the whole package stymied by unaccountable bureaucrats was “not acceptable”.
His words may be a way for national negotiators to save face in the event of a u-turn by the council, but those bureaucrats have been at the table for many years now and they are all representing interests back home, primarily those of big telcos.
Sources told El Reg that failure to pass this law would be a blow to the newly announced Digital Single Market strategy and is part of a larger power struggle between the Council and the European Parliament. ®