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EU Needs One Telco Market to Rule Them All, Says EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 30 2013

EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes called on the European Parliament to pass legislation to guarantee net neutrality and end mobile roaming costs within the next year as part of an effort to achieve a true European single market and engage EU citizens politically.

Kroes, vice president of the European Commission responsible for its digital agenda, made the remarks in an address to the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament.

At the start of her speech, she noted that she had decided against delivering remarks she had prepared focused on a list of examples of digital progress and concerns because "we need a different and very political discussion about delivering a telecoms single market."

"You and I share the stake in this debate, so tell me: will join me in building something special between now and the European elections [in spring 2014]?," she said. "I want us to show citizens that the EU is relevant to their lives. That we made the digital rules catch up with their legitimate expectations. I want you to be able to go back to your constituents and say that you were able to end mobile roaming costs. I want you to be able to say that you saved their right to access the open internet, by guaranteeing net neutrality. I want you to be able to say we took real action on cybercrime and other threats."

She said she was a confident in being able to deliver a package of legislation by Easter 2014. She emphasized that the significance of such legislation would go beyond benefits to the economy.

"Take the young generation - the generation that cares most about being connected, but who votes the least. They need a strong and digital economy to escape the unemployment trap. Think also about our aging population: the people who need new digital services to stay healthy and active, without losing their dignity and independence," she said. "If we do this right, then digital connections can bring political connections. Digital dividends can bring social ones."

She cautioned that such a package might not include everything lawmakers wish for and suggested that balance and compromise would be important in order to move quickly, but emphasized that the potential impact on Europeans' daily lives would still be significant.

"Everyone loves the benefits of EU price cuts to roaming. It is the one thing even 'Eurocritics' agree the EU did well. And it could never have happened without the EU," she said.

But she went on to say that since it is often difficult push other telecom and digital issues to the top of the digital agenda, one way to overcome that challenge is to tie those issues to the broader legislative priority of a single European market.

She called on lawmakers to work on crafting "a radical legislative compromise" with an emphasis on benefits for citizens rather than the structures of bureaucracy, while keeping in mind that often the most important measures are not the "visible and sexy changes" and can be "invisible investments."

Urging on the members of Parliament, she added that "we have support from the highest levels in the institutions to push forward."

Markus Beckedahl from German blog Netzpolitik.org wrote in a post that he found the message of the speech slightly odd, since the Parliament had already called on the EU Commission to introduce a net neutrality law in October 2012, and a spokesperson had recently seemed to imply more of an emphasis on trusting in market forces. He noted that her proposals could have relevance in the context of controversy in Germany over net neutrality and throttling of connections.

While the speech struck Beckedahl and Joe McNamee from European Digital Rights as somewhat vague in terms of her definition of open Internet, she was more specific in a Twitter post following her speech: "Blocking & throttling Internet services, apps hurts us all - no reason 2b anti-competitive like this. Pls back me 2 stop it #netneutrality."

Beckedahl wrote that his advocacy organization would support such a proposal if it would indeed help to enshrine net neutrality into law, and warned that the time frame for action in this legislative period would close this fall, "but it is doable. If there is a will."

In a report the EU Commission released earlier this week, research found that two-thirds of young Europeans intend to vote in next year's EU Parliament elections, but are still less inclined to vote than their parents and express dissatisfaction with how politics works. The report also found that awareness of the direct election of EU Members of Parliament varied across countries, ranging from 70 percent in Lithuania, 65 percent in Ireland to 35 percent in Germany and 32 percent in the Netherlands. The most frequent response given for not voting by 64 percent overall was the belief that voting would not change anything. Voter turnout for the previous elections in 2009 across all EU member countries was 43 percent, ranging from 90 percent in Belgium, where voting is compulsory, to 43 percent in Germany, 35 percent in the U.K. to barely 20 percent in Slovakia.

But even as Kroes called for the elimination of virtual borders, the EU Commission, EU Parliament and member countries announced a new agreement giving member countries more discretion to temporarily authorize actual border controls in the event of security threats, including some instances where a sudden mass influx of immigrants could be a factor to consider, according to some reports.