EU telecoms ministers back watered-down legal reforms

BRUSSELS – Plans to reform Europe’s legal landscape for the telecoms industry remain on track, after nearly being derailed at a tense meeting of government ministers last week.

Failure by the 27 telecoms ministers to reach an agreed position would have extinguished any hope of the laws coming into effect next year as hoped, leaving the industry in a state of prolonged legal limbo.

The U.K., Sweden and the Netherlands abstained on grounds that the agreed changes weren’t ambitious enough, but no country opposed the compromise package tabled by France, holder of the six-month rotating presidency of the E.U.

Telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding saw many of her planned reforms watered down. These include the creation of an E.U.-wide regulatory authority, and Europe-wide co-ordination of the distribution of radio spectrum freed up by the migration to digital TV from analog broadcasting.

The ministers did support the Commission plan to arm national telecoms regulators with the threat of “functional separation” if their former state monopolies fail to compete fairly with rivals. So did the European Parliament.

Reding welcomed the agreement reached Thursday, applauding French telecoms minister Luc Chatel “for having resolved this crisis.”

“It is obvious our text is far more ambitious than the text on the table at the moment and which has now been agreed,” Reding told the ministers at the meeting, adding that the commission will continue to push for bigger changes during the final stage of drafting the laws.

The European Parliament will now debate the changes for a second time because it shares decision-making powers with the council of national government ministers. The Parliament, which so far has taken a position closer to the one proposed by the commission on most elements of the reform package, has to agree a compromise position with the ministers before the end of its current legislature, which expires next summer.

“On the key points we still have work on the table but there is nothing which can give me the impression there will be a stop in the procedure,” said Catherine Trautmann, a French socialist member of parliament in a statement released after the meeting Thursday.

“I am sure we can have a result before the end of the legislature,” Trautmann added.