Yesterday’s “jokes” and sarcasm by Digital Single Market’s Vice President Ansip on EU member states’ right to protect their telco markets

"How on earth did you think that the national telcos would take all that risk without any reassurance plan?" This should probably be the question of Mrs Vestager to Mr Ansip today during the weekly meeting of Juncker's College of Commissioners. From left to right, Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the EC in charge of Digital Single Market and Margrethe Vestager, Member of the EC in charge of Competition (EC Audiovisual Services, 25/03/2015).

“How on earth did you think that the national telcos would take all that risk without any reassurance plan?” This should probably be the question of Mrs Vestager to Mr Ansip today during the weekly meeting of Juncker’s College of Commissioners. From left to right, Andrus Ansip, Vice-President of the EC in charge of Digital Single Market and Margrethe Vestager, Member of the EC in charge of Competition (EC Audiovisual Services, 25/03/2015).

The distance between an actual speech and a press release is abyssal. A good example of that came out of Mr Ansip’s introductory speech at an event in Brussels yesterday evening about the EU Digital Single Market. The Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Single Market (DSM) touched there briefly all current hot topics of the EU digital agenda. What is groundbreaking about his speech though is only the absolutely sarcastic tone he showed towards the European Council, something that is not at all depicted in the “clean and polished” official press release by the Commission containing his speech.

But let’s try to explain here what could have made a top EU official point the finger abruptly to the EU member states, clearly crossing the line between criticism and sarcasm. We are talking here of course about the EU Digital Single Market, one of the top priorities of Juncker’s Commission, a plan that would consolidate the fragmented EU digital and telecommunications market, which is currently broken to 28 pieces.

The European Union, obviously inspired by the US model, just like the organiser of yesterday’s event (European Voice bought by Politico), is keen to pursue the American oligo/monopolized model where a few telco or ISP providers are ripping the market off. Of course, it was smart to have Mr Ansip’s speech followed by a presentation of an American expert, explaining how the US telco monopoly has lead the fellow citizens at the other side of the Atlantic pay twice compared to the average European for the same services.

Nevertheless, analysing the extremely complex DSM project is not a priority of this article. Rather, we would like to focus on Vice President’s sarcastic manifesto towards the EU nations. Mr Ansip was referring to the European Council’s proposal, titled Telecoms Package, which was published at the beginning of March. We first read it in Barcelona, where the Sting was the only Brussels media to sponsor the great Mobile World Congress 2015, and to a certain extent we were not surprised by the discrepancy with what the European Parliament had voted for one year ago; the complete scrapping of roaming charges in the EU and uncompromised net neutrality.

Mr Ansip himself revealed yesterday the reason for the Council’s will to back down a bit, an excerpt missing from the Commission’s press release. The Estonian politician said that the Commission has been trying to bring the European Digital Market since the good old times of Mrs Viviane Reding, which by the way dates back to 2010. The Luxembourg politician was then succeeded by Mrs Neelie Kroes, who had promised 2015 to be the end of roaming charges in the Old Continent, and whose promise was broken by the Council’s Telecoms Package that pushes that back into 2018. Now the DSM hot potato is in Mr Gunther Oettinger’s hands, who succeeded the 73 year old net neutrality evangelist and now is Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

Do you already feel dizzy by the too many successions in the Commission’s hot seat of Digital Agenda? Mr Ansip empathised with you yesterday, wondering “who is going to be the next one”, making fun of the fruitless Commissioner succession on the matter and “hoping” that there will be another Commission to shoot for Digital Single Market in 2020. However, the Vice President yesterday appeared ready to cut red tape and proceed with “courage” and fast with the implementation of what the Parliament had voted for, eradication of roaming charges and net neutrality in the EU.

“This is a joke”, the Estonian Commissioner said yesterday referring to the Council’s Telecoms Package. “I cannot support the very limited basic allowance of Council’s current reply to people’s call for the complete abolition of roaming charges” he stressed. “We must definitely go further. We should remember our ultimate aim: the full and swift abolition of roaming surcharges – and not only their reduction.” On Net Neutrality Europe’s top digital evangelist said: “We need to make sure that the internet is not splintered apart by different rules”… “This is why we need common rules for net neutrality. Then, we need an open internet for consumers. No blocking or throttling.”

Further, he noted that the “Latvian proposition” (Latvia is currently leading the Presidency of the EU Council) has omitted important issues like the matters of spectrum and geo-blocking. Mr Ansip did not hesitate to critically speak about those two as well: “As you may have noticed, spectrum is still on [the Commission’s] agenda – but not on that of EU member states,” he said. “This is despite the significance, ambition and urgency that EU heads of state [and government] gave to the single telecoms market back in October 2013.”…”Our strategy for building the Digital Single Market will involve removing barriers that prevent people and business from deriving the full benefits of the internet revolution. That means bringing down barriers to the free movement of goods and services.This is not a problem for just a few people. It goes much wider. It is a pan-European problem. In a public consultation on copyright held a year ago, 95% of people complained that they had been geo-blocked. We also know these figures: – one in five Europeans sitting at home wants to access content from other EU countries; – more than a quarter want to access content from their own country when they are abroad. Cross-border e-commerce should be as seamless and easy as national. But it is still underdeveloped: last year, for example, only 15 % of consumers bought cross-border compared with 44% shopping nationally. When we put an end to geo-blocking and other barriers to e-commerce like the high cost of cross-border parcel delivery, digital demand will inevitably rise. It will lead to more traffic – and Europe’s telecommunications systems, networks and industry need to be ready to cope.”

What is really astonishing though is to see the Vice-President in a sarcastic crescento using strict body language and words like “joke”, “nonsense”, “disappointed”, saying that the European citizen is feeling tricked and more like this. Constructive criticism is always essential in the EU, but not sarcasm towards the EU nations. The EU telco market is not a mono/oligopoly like the US where cable turnover will fall naturally from the tree. Telecommunications companies and operators here are plenty and diverse and they fight for every single eurocent in their margin to stay alive.

It is only reasonable that the EU members will try to protect their telco industry, just because it is too important for them and also because the EU economy is still on a standstill. There is no easy alternative for the national economies if telcos suffer great losses or the small ones collapse; unemployment will rise and also the prices of the Internet or phone services that the citizens have to pay for.

Thus, instead of sarcasm and expressions like “joke” or “nonsense” by the EU Commission, it would have been more prudent to show to the local telcos exactly how not a big catastrophe will be that roaming charges go away or they are more correct regarding net neutrality. The Parliament has voted for it and this constitutes a demand from the citizen of Europe. But is the Commission trying to show the alternative way to the local national telcos? Or it expects from the industry to take the risk of the world just to move towards the “American” oligopolistic model? What is in for the economy if the roaming charges vanish? That is the question that Mr Ansip and his colleagues need to answer, rather than calling the economies of the member states “a joke”.

However, the real issue in the Commission regarding the implementation of the Digital Single Market perhaps was outlined yesterday night in Brussels, but neither from Vice President Ansip, nor from any distinguished panelist. A very smart question towards Mr Ansip from the audience went basically like this: “Do your colleagues at the Commission just check the local implementation of your DSM plan or actually innovate, look ahead and search for ways to enhance the market with real strategy and deep understanding of its function?”

Mr Ansip answered to that saying that his bureaucrats are good enough. The matter is so complicated that the Commission should work on educating the market about this new Digital Single Market era rather than just ask them to do it because the EU says so. And this is difficult to achieve since for real innovation, the EU usually begs for the lights of the industry, because the bureaucrats simply cannot do it, like in the 5G case.

Today there is an orientation debate happening at the Commission on the matter which is in full development. The Parliament and the Commission are strongly trying to change the minds of the Council. May is a crucial month for a final conclusion. The Sting will follow very closely this largely debated issue that divides the parlamentarians, the bureaucrats and the economies of the European nations, while the citizens pay just too much for 1 MB of data roaming.

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