Can mobile roaming and net neutrality reform help save Europe?

In case you hadn’t noticed, Europe is in trouble. The Eurozone crisis, which is far from over, has laid bare the economic and even social divisions between north and south. Polling shows internal support for the EU is at an all-time low of just 41 percent. The European project needs a boost.

Might lower mobile roaming charges and a net neutrality guarantee help save the day? It may sound absurd, but that is indeed the gist of a major speech given this morning by Neelie Kroes, the EU’s digital chief. And Kroes wants to move fast: her team tells me the plan is for official proposals to be published “by September at the latest” before seeking approval from member states by October and the European Parliament by December. If successful, the proposals would be law by Easter next year.

Highlighting relevance

Kroes, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission, has already been the driving force behind the lowering of mobile roaming costs within the EU (a project begun by her predecessor, current justice commissioner Viviane Reding). This does have real relevance to the promotion of the single market – if you want to make citizens of the various EU member states feel as one, removing barriers to their free movement is a pretty good start.

She has also been consulting about the potential need for guaranteed net neutrality, and what that guarantee might look like. Up until now, though, she’s appeared very cool on the need for change.

But now Kroes wants to eliminate roaming premiums and set net neutrality (in some form) in stone, all in the name of European unity. Quick context primer: the European Parliament elections are next year, and EU authorities are petrified that the Parliament will suddenly be filled with parliamentarians who want the EU to be dissolved or downgraded.

From today’s speech, which was largely directed at Malcolm Harbour MEP, the chair of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection:

“You and I share the stake in this debate, so tell me: will you join me in building something special between now and the European elections? 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.”

Kroes does have a point: the capping of roaming charges has been an unequivocal vote-winner. When many people see Europe (with some justification) as needlessly bureaucratic, no-one can argue with the benefits of cutting the telcos down to size on what are mostly unjustified roaming charges. Most people also see an open internet as a good thing, although the benefits are less tangible — many will find it hard to appreciate what the alternative might look like.

Battleground revisited

But Kroes’s new plan is nonetheless highly ambitious. Let’s leave net neutrality aside for a moment – her position on that has always been quite mysterious and there are no new details to hand as to what she might now be proposing.

On the roaming front, the current plan for lowering charges involves annual steps on the ladder, with each step taking place at the start of a July (just in time to please holiday-makers travelling around the continent). The last rung is scheduled for July 2014, and Kroes is now promising a whole new reform package that will be delivered “around Easter 2014”: ahead of July, and ahead of those crucial elections. And that new package will involve eliminating roaming costs entirely, not just minimizing them as the current package does.

The plan that’s already in place is quite complex: not only are roaming costs being capped, but carriers are also due to be forced to decouple their roaming tariffs from their domestic tariffs, so that people who are (quite reasonably) selecting their carrier on the basis of their domestic offerings don’t get locked into those carriers’ roaming deals as well. This second, structural part of the reform is designed to stimulate a new generation of mobile virtual network operators that specialize in offering cheap roaming deals.

In other words, the major carriers already loathe Kroes, and now she’s potentially preparing to add insult to injury – we don’t know how much insult yet, as the speech didn’t contain any detail, but she did say she was talking about “a radical legislative compromise”, whatever that means.

As Kroes closed her speech:

“So if you believe in the single market; if you believe in a strong Europe that makes a practical difference to each citizen’s life — then Believe. In. This. This is the opportunity to stand up and be counted. I will fight with my last breath to get us there together.”

Get ready for fireworks.

UPDATE (5.10am PT): Looks like Kroes really does mean business on the net neutrality front. Here’s a tweet from her right-hand man, Ryan Heath: