EU Commission landmark legislation on mobile roaming charges comes into force

Labour Party

New European Union rules have just come into effect which will cut the cost of calls abroad. Making a call abroad will fall by at least 17% and downloading data will be 36% cheaper following EU legislation.

This is a significant development for those travelling across Europe. The European Commission has been working relentlessly to achieve this since 2007. Rates were first cut in 2012 and additional cuts will be made in July 2014.

In addition the Commission said mobile phone operators must notify users when they reach 80% of their data roaming limit and cut the mobile internet before they exceed this unless the user opts out of this option.

This is an important breakthrough for consumers. Research by iPass, the Wi-Fi roaming provider, found that 43% of remote workers had experienced an expensive data roaming bill in the last year in excess of £715. This legislation will protect consumers in the future and avoid those who unwittingly create such a high bill and are forced to shell hundreds of pounds in data charges they may never have intended to use.

Commenting on the lower charges, European Commission Vice-President, Neelie Kroes, said: “The EU has to be relevant to people’s lives.

“The latest price cuts put more money in your pocket for summer, and are a critical step towards getting rid of these premiums once and for all.

“This is good for both consumers and companies, because it takes fear out of the market, and it grows the market.”

The new price caps now operational across the European Union, excluding VAT are:

45 cents (38p) a megabyte to download data or browse the internet

24 cents (20p) a minute to make a call

7 cents (6p) a minute to receive a call

8 cents (7p) to send a text message

Hungarian Government Conciliatory Over Media Laws

Labour Party

The Hungarian government has responded to Information Commissioner Neelie Kroes’s concerns over their controversial new media laws.  In a letter from the deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Tibor Navracsics, they have set out their justification for various aspect of the law.

Having read the letter it appears to be a case of laws having the potential for being abused (the ability to levy fines for ‘imbalanced media coverage’), but perhaps sounding a lot worse than they are.  The impression I’ve got is that perhaps this wasn’t the best thought-out piece of legislation.  This often happens when governments have very large majorities, as the Fidesz Party does at the moment. 

I think that it’s a good thing that the Commission has stepped in and scrutinised this legislation and the Hungarians are now prepared to revise anything that coud conflict with Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMS) or indeed the European Convention on Human Rights.  The letter, though interesting, is rather long, but if you feel like reading it then please do click on the read more option.

Concern over State Control of the Media in Hungary

Labour Party

The newish right-wing government in Hungary is proving a real headache. Clearly not content with gaining two thirds of the vote (enough to guarantee constitutional change) in last April’s general election, the ruling Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz Party now appears to be severely overreaching itself.

Like eastern European governments before, the current Hungarian administration under Viktor Orban is casting a distrustful eye over the country’s media and as a result the Hungarian Parliament has recently passed new media legislation.

However, this legislation appears far from benign. MEPs and other European organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have made representations along the following lines:

The new legislation undermines media pluralism in that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are essentially part of the state apparatus, can sanction the content of all media

The Media Authority and Media Council are politically homogenous, led exclusively by members supported by the current governing party and the members were elected for a term of nine years

The legislation abolishes the political and financial independence of public service media as all heads of public service media were recently replaced by new directors all of whom were nominated by the governing party

These media laws can only be modified by a two-thirds majority on the Hungarian Parliament. In other words the media legislation could be on the statute books for a very long time.

The EU, which has competence over aspects of media policy through the Culture and Education Committee and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes is rightly concerned about what is going on in relation to the media in Hungary. 

A joint meeting of the Culture and Education and Civil Liberties Committees yesterday debated Hungary’s new media law after hearing presentations from Mrs. Kroes and Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice Tibor Navracsics, who was questioned closely on the aspects of the legislation which require all media to register as such and provide “balanced” coverage of national and EU events.

Mrs. Kroes rightly chose a conciliatory approach saying, “We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns”.  She added that the Commission is assessing the new law’s compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.

Following a press conference this morning led by S&D Group President Martin Schulz, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has decided to wait for the Commission’s legal assessment before taking any further substantive action.

Although I believe both the Commission and the S&D Group are doing the right thing, there are clearly serious concerns about the way the Hungarian Government appears to be going after the media and seeking to diminish press and media freedom. If there is a case to answer the European Union must not shirk its responsibilities.

Chairing a Conference on the European Media Revolution

Labour Party

“The serious and thoughtful of the advertising, broadcasting and publishing worlds gathered in Brussels (June 30) for an evening with a select group of European Parliament members. The event, hosted by UK MEP Mary Honeyball, was themed “European Media Revolution – Ensuring Viability.” 

So said  Michael Hughes from ftm – follow the media – website described a conference I chaired last week.

We were fortunate to have Commissioner Neelie Kroes addressing the conference. This is how Michael Hughes reported her speech:

“Commissioner Kroes described her job as addressing “the urgent need for Europe to lift its productivity growth and the possibilities that digital technologies provide for addressing many of our social challenges.” The “wider context,” where all policy makers live and breath, “is that only a comprehensive strategy for maximizing the potential of ICTs will have a real impact. ICTs are shaping our quality of life, how we do business, how we consume, and how we fill our days. They are also changing the power balance between countries, communication platforms and generations.”

“None can afford to be passive in the face of the challenges of digital transformation,” said the Commissioner,  “whether policy-maker, or publisher or producer of content.”

As consumers find joy with new media, traditional medias’ business models have been turned on their heads. Commissioner Kroes offered a little advice: “While people are used to paying for content, and are sometimes simply not willing to pay, there are enough examples to show that given the right, distinctive, quality content they may pay.”

“I can’t solve that content challenge for you.”

 “Simply waiting and seeing will not do.”

“The days of double digit returns from a traditional business model are over, and print journalism needs to find new ways to balance the books.”

 “Europe must never become a media museum,” said Commissioner Kroes at both the beginning and end of her remarks.” 

 The conference, organised primarily by the Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT) was very successful and provided us all with valuable insights into complex issues.  The debate about new media, the more traditional media and future direction will run for a very long time.  It was good to be involved last week and I look forward to continuing the discussion at many levels in the future.

Firm and far-reaching plans for the digital agenda in Europe

Labour Party

You will remember I wrote a less than favourable blog about the Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes following her confirmation hearing in the middle of January.

I now take it all back.  At the European Parliament Culture and Education Committee yesterday Commissioner Kroes gave an excellent presentation about the aspects of her digital agenda brief which concern our Committee’s work.  Speaking in English throughout she gained the support and respect of the whole Committee.  I for one am now pleased that we eventually took the decision to confirm her in what is an extremely important post.

Mrs Kroes has set six key performance targets for the digital agenda for Europe, in itself no mean feat in the EU where practicality can get drowned out by reaching for the lowest common denominator, not to mention the philosophising beloved by some of my colleagues.

1. Broadband targets

  •  Basic broadband for all by 2013
  •  Fast broadband by 2020 – coverage of at least 30 Mbps for everyone in the EU
  • • Ultra-fast broadband by 2020. Half of European households to have 100 Mbps

2. Digital single market

  • Promoting e-commerce. 50% of the population should be buying online by 2018 and 20% buying cross border by 2015
  • Telecoms. Difference between national and roaming tariffs should be zero by 2015
  • 33% of SME should conduct online services by 2015

3. Digital inclusion

  •  Increase regular internet use from 60% to 75% by 2015 and from 41% to 60% of disadvantaged people
  •  Halve the proportion of the population who have never used the internet by 2015 (30% down to 15%)

4. Public services

  •   50% of EU population using e-government by 2015
  • Online availability of cross border public services by 2015

5. Research and innovation

  •  Double public investment to €11 billion

6. Low Carbon Economy

  •  By 2020 at least 20% overall reduction in energy use on lighting

The Culture and Education Committee added issues of its own during the discussion.  Committee members were concerned about copyright on the internet, currently a hot topic. There is no doubt that illegal file sharing, especially of music, is having a detrimental effect on artists and performers.

As well as being particularly concerned about the protection of children from sexual and other abuse on the internet, I also raised the issue of medial literacy. People need not only to know how to access the internet but also how to use it responsibly and get the most out of it.

The Commissioner took our points on board and I am sure she will look into the detail of what Committee members said.  Mrs Kroes is, I believe, genuinely committed to working with the European Parliament and will do her utmost to ensure co-operation between us, the Commisson and the Council.  On a personal level I would also like to thank Mrs Kroes for the one-on-one meeting I had with her recently.

At last we have a European Commission

Labour Party

José Manuel Barroso

Cathy Ashton

Viviane Reding

Joaquín Almunia

Siim Kallas

Neelie Kroes

So we now have a European Commission, a mere eight months after the European elections at the beginning of June last year.  It’s been an interminably long process for no particular reason that is immediately obvious.

Yes, we did have the problems with Mrs Jeleva, Bulgaria’s original nominee for Commissioner who proved to be not up to the job at her European Parliament Committee Hearing and has now been replaced by Kristalina Georgieva.  While this necessitated another hearing, that’s hardly a good reason for the whole business taking eight months.

The fact that the EU moves slowly is hardly news.  More interesting is the decision taken by the ECR (the political group founded and largely made up of British Tories) to abstain when the European Parliament voted to agree the new European Commission yesterday. 

Antonio Tajani

Janez Potočnik

Olli Rehn

Andris Piebalgs

Michel Barnier

Androulla Vassiliou

Abstention seems a cowardly approach, neither one thing or the other.  If you don’t like the new arrangements, have the courage of your convictions and vote against. 

Jan Zahradil who spoke on behalf of the ECR during the debate in the European Parliament didn’t manage to shed much light on their pusillanimous behaviour, saying to Mr Barroso, Commission President,  “In 2005, you came up with the idea of cutting red tape by simplifying legislation. Why not revive this idea now?” He added “If you demonstrate that you’re a reformer, we shall back you, but if you follow well-trodden paths, we shall stand up and resist you”.  If the ECR doesn’t like Barroso, they should, of course, put their money where their mouth is and not hide behind abstaining.

Inevitably there have been criticisms of the way Barroso put together his team of Commissioners and allocated portfolios.  I have to say I am not at all happy with the way portfolios do not correspond to the work of European Parliament Committees.  For instance, on the Culture and Education Committee we have Mrs. Vassiliou as our main Commissioner covering education, culture, multilingualism and youth.  However we also have to deal with Neelie Kroes on the digital agenda and Vivian Reding for some of the wider communication brief including media pluralism.  This lack of alignment of portfolios to Committee responsibilities will, I believe, have the effect of weakening European Parliament Committees in their dealings with Commissioners, i.e. Barroso will stand a better chance of getting his agenda through.

President Barroso’s leadership style has, in fact, caused much consternation.  The Green Group put forward a motion, which was subsequently rejected, to the plenary session on the European Parliament yesterday.  I did, however, agree with some of it, notably its statement that Mr Barroso has weakened the position of individual Commissioners-designate by implementing a policy of divide and rule i.e. by defining and allocating portfolios without proper consideration for their abilities and affinities, and has even moved Commissioners away from portfolios in which, to date, they have demonstrated their competence.  This policy has arguably led, inter alia, to the resignation of one of the nominees.

The resolution went on to note that Mr Barroso has reshuffled portfolios within the Commission in a such a way that there is no clear division of responsibility in some key areas, thus confirming the trend towards a presidential model for the Commission, with the risk that the role of individual Commissioners may be reduced to that of advisors to the President, a state of affairs at odds with the spirit of the Treaties.  You may at this point be forgiven for thinking that Mr Barroso is seeking to become the real President rather than one of equal status to the EU’s other four presidents.

Meanwhile, here is the new European Commission as approved by the European Parliament yesterday.

Maroš Šefčovič

Dacian Cioloş

Kristalina Georgieva

Cecilia Malmström

Johannes Hahn

László Andor

Stefan Füle

Connie Hedegaard

Günther Oettinger

Maria Damanaki

Janusz Lewandowski

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

John Dalli

Karel De Gucht

Algirdas Semeta

Neelie Kroes hearing less than adequate

Labour Party

Commissioner-Designate Neelie Kroes is facing difficulties following her Hearing last Thursday.  Competition Commissioner throughout the last European Parliament mandate, Ms Kroes, a member of the Liberal Group from Holland, has been given the digital agenda portfolio by Commission President, Jose Manuel Barosso. 

Ms Kroes had a reputation as a strong Commissioner when she held the Competition brief.  I therefore expected her to breeze through her Hearing this time.  She is, after all, the woman who stood up to new technology giant Microsoft.  For many years, Microsoft tied its ‘Internet Explorer’ web browser to its ‘Windows’ computer operating system. Concerned that – given Microsoft’s dominance of the PC operating system market – this deprived consumers of choice and resulted in fewer innovative products, Ms Kroes set about opening up the market.

 The initiative proved successful and in October 2009, Microsoft offered commitments to remove this barrier to competition.  No mean achievement for the EU in general and Ms Kroes in particular.

 After such a feat you would have thought a Hearing before MEPs, albeit on a different portfolio, would have presented no problems at all.  But this was not the case.

 I went to the part of the Hearing which concerned the Culture and Education Committee dealing with cultural diversity and media pluralism.  I did, in fact, ask Ms Kroes how she would go about securing futher pluralism in the media and lessening the concentration of media outlets in the hands of certain individuals and corporations.  I have to say, she didn’t seem to understand the question and gave a less than adequate reply.

 Mine was not the only question mishandled.  Ms Kroes, in addition, did not appear interested in the UNESCO Convention on the protection and promotion of cultural diversity, which the EU is signed up to. 

 We have not, so far, rejected Ms Kroes, but she is to be re-interviewed tomorrow.  I will be bringing you an update as soon as I possibly can.