On paper (almost) everyone in Europe is lining up to praise the benefits of building a digital single market, including national governments. However, of late, member states have shown little appetite for “europeanising” their digital policies.
“One response to the digital revolution must be the Europeanisation of digital policy,” EU digital commissioner Gunther Oettinger proclaimed on Monday 16 March at the CeBIT fair in Hannover. His statement comes not as a surprise. Ever since its early days the European Commission has expressed the intention of going after national silos in the digital market.
We have also known for some time that such ambitions are being packed into a grand strategy due to be unveiled in May which will comprise a set of reforms in as many areas as copyright, telecommunications, audio-visual services, e-commerce, and so forth.
On paper (almost) everyone in Europe is lining up to applaud the move, including national governments. Only two weeks ago, a Council meeting of EU Competitiveness Ministers gave its blessing calling various actions aimed at removing unnecessary barriers in order to enable a smooth and quick transition to the digital age.
Building a European digital market is also one of the 10 key actions outlined in the German government’s digital plan for 2014-2017 that was presented by Angela Markel in person at the opening of CeBIT.
Yet behind these rosy appearances the reality may be way more challenging for Mr. Oettinger and his fellow commissioners. In fact, of late, member states have shown little appetite for “europeanising” their digital policies. The perfect illustration of this ill-concealed reluctance is the recent agreement reached by the Council on the so-called “Connected Continent” package.
Originally, the proposed regulation provided for less red tape for operators (for instance by creating a single authorisation to provide services across the EU), more coordination of spectrum use, a higher level of standardization for fixed access products as well as for consumer rules.
None of these proposals has survived the compromise text endorsed by member states, who removed from the package everything but its provisions on net neutrality and roaming charges.
At the end of the day, the irony is that the amended text of a proposal named “Telecom Single Market” would do nothing to sort out Europe’s fragmented telecoms market and regulatory imbalances.
And this is not an isolated case. From the data protection reform to the EU cyber security directive (most) national governments have so far appeared more prone to water down than to embrace the Commission’s drive for more common rules (and, conversely, less national powers) in many key areas of the digital sphere.
This is a worrying signal taking into consideration that the balance of EU power is tilting back towards governments at the expense of Brussels’ supranational institutions (European Commission and the European Parliament).
Things may perhaps change. No doubt the European Commission will try its best to build consensus using all its diplomatic leverage to push through digital reforms.
But given the precedents, as the forthcoming plan on the digital single market will entail several legislations that will touch upon sensitive national interests, not to mention the pressure coming from corporate lobbies, the fundamental question that should be asked is: Are our governments enough serious about building a truly digital single market? Or will they persist in striking “watered-down” and unambitious compromises that would clearly harm Europe’s chances to link its future prosperity to the digital economy?