Photo: Bram Belloni (c) 2013
A Dutch MEP has launched an intergroup in Parliament to pressure the European Commission and member states to create a "future proof digital agenda." But she fears that the EU will again fail to pass legislation on issues like copyright reform and net neutrality.
Brussels (dpa Insight) - Policy answers to the ongoing IT revolution are central to the new European Commission's strategic agenda. But a borderless European digital market could be thwarted by national governments and EU officials acting on behalf of conservative business interests, Liberal Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake warned, referencing European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Guenther Oettinger in particular.
"Oettinger seems to be the voice of vested interests, as his points often reflect the ones of publishers," she told dpa Insight EU in an interview. "Maybe he needs more time to get into the subject."
Schaake has initiated the launch of an intergroup, a sort of caucus, of over 70 MEPs dedicated to tackling digital issues. She explains the increased political popularity of the digital agenda - but also voices frustration with the conservatism and sensitivity to vested interests of national governments.
Five years ago, Europe's digital agenda was an unpopular theme in the European Commission and Parliament. In 2009 the Dutch commissioner-candidate, Neelie Kroes, could choose between the digital portfolio, fisheries or multilingualism. But Kroes and Schaake have tried to put the theme higher on Europe's agenda relentlessly, and their efforts may well have boosted its popularity.
Schaake was noted in the previous mandate for her work on civil liberties, in particular serving as rapporteur for the Parliament's rapporteur on digital freedom in EU foreign policy and media freedom.
dpa: You have been one of the few MEPs in the last mandate raising awareness on the digital agenda, forming an informal tandem with Commissioner Kroes. What is the state of play now?
Schaake: "The digital themes are now prominently on Europe's agenda and they form one of [Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker's priorities. Many new MEPs have a certain feeling for the importance of the issue for society. But I am gloomy in the sense that many concrete steps in the digital domain have been lying on the table for five years, and still the EU hasn't taken action. And action is now very urgent."
dpa: Could you give examples of what is on the table?
Schaake: "It is discouraging to see how the Council is handling the telecoms package. There are three pillars to this package towards an internal market for telecoms - by creating rules on auctioning spectrums, abolishing roaming and defining net neutrality. The member states are delaying these steps, watering them down or simply opting against them. Auctions are a cash cow for governments, only last week the US government sold spectrum for 45 billion dollars which had been expected to sell for 18 billion dollars. Digital services keep on being throttled, roaming charges will only disappear later.
So while everyone talks positively about the idea of a digital market, it is incredibly difficult to actually realise it. The gap between dream and action is worrisome and there is a striking lack of political leadership. In the meantime hundreds of millions of Europeans do not have access to all available services on the web."
dpa: The telecoms package is one issue. But the new Commission also wants to propose new reforms. What are your priorities for a digital single market?
Schaake: "The approach should be to remove barriers. For instance copyright rules, which are now very fragmented, but also the difference of VAT rates for books and ebooks. Then there are obstacles in the non-digital market that impact the digital market, such as the cross-border deliverance of postal packages. An online shop can be attractive to customers if the goods they order can be delivered at a low cost. Another annoyance is the difficulty in online payments.
Such barriers have an impact on the market conditions of startups, which need a playing field to grow and create jobs. They face difficulties rolling out digital services because they have to deal with 28 different copyright regimes, lack access to capital, and have to wait many months for knowledge worker visas. The end result is that many startups are lured to go to the United States, and Europe misses their effects in term of job creation and trickle down of digital innovations."
dpa: The Commission is approaching the digital agenda as a more horizontal issue.
Schaake: "That is the right approach, because it is not a subject but a layer which touches everything - from taxes to healthcare, from the access to knowledge to security issues. But I think that the [previous] Commission has focused too much on the logistical side of the digital agenda, and too little on the value question.
The angle of values is interesting. We believe in principles like competition. But they are challenged by the ongoing digitisation. Net neutrality wasn't an issue before the advent of the internet. But to ensure fair competition and to protect the open internet, it is needed. We shouldn't only talk about a digital market but also about a digital public space."
dpa: Who are the main opponents to the Commission's plan to establish a Digital Single Market?
Schaake: "Those parties that benefit from a status quo of legislation like the telecom operators. These incumbents are relatively numerous, are often still closely connected to the national state as former state-owned companies, and are faced with a possible loss of revenues. Other players affected are collective management organisations that claim authors' rights.
Member state governments can also be a problem. In general, they have proved to be unwilling to deal with matters on a European level and are reluctant to reform on a national level. But when the countries do suggest a reform, they suggest the EU solution be based on their own model, rather than finding a common ground."
dpa: You have launched an Intergroup for the Digital Agenda in the Parliament. Why?
Schaake: "The theme is so broad that you cannot deal with it in a single committee. Our past experience was that discussions on digital issues remain within the lines of committees and this is not how the Parliament should work.
We want to facilitate the discussion on the Digital Agenda but also address new issues. The intergroup already has over 70 MEPs who come from different political groups and countries.
For once we do not emphisase our political background but explore our knowledge base and see how technology can have a positive influence on society, while safeguarding citizens' rights."
dpa: What is the intergroup planning to do?
Schaake: "Our first meeting resulted in a long list of themes, from open data to cybersecurity, from stimulating entrepreneurship to dealing with the Charlie Hebdo-aftermath. Our goal is to address such themes in around ten meetings a year that we finance by ourselves, untied to any interest. Already many organisations are approaching us to participate and hear more about our plans."
dpa: Back to the Commission's ambitions. Are they realistic? Already the announced copyright reform proposal is delayed by a couple of months.
Schaake: "We must make sure history does not repeat itself. [The previous internal market commissioner Michel] Barnier postponed a copyright proposal until the end of his mandate, he became frightened of public opinion after the anti-ACTA vote. We really need to hurry up in Europe. We have gathered a lot of input and positions on the various elements of the digital agenda, so the Commission can formulate sound proposals. Let's hope the new structure of the Commission brings new results. Vice President Andrus Ansip brings relevant experience from Estonia."
dpa: What if we don't do anything and just leave it to the market and the member states to come up with solutions?
Schaake: "Europe is becoming ever more divided, and that means a weak Europe that doesn't play a strong role at the global level. We will be less able to attract talent and keep companies on the continent. People in general are annoyed by all these digital barriers. If laws become very outdated, they lose legitimacy. What you see is that people who attach great value to the rule of law are now downloading free movies without any problem. And the entertainment industry still thinks it can stop piracy by arresting a couple of offenders. We have to address all these problems now, with a future proof digital agenda. Doing nothing is not an option."
dpa: What are your key priorities for that digital agenda?
Schaake: "Copyright, net neutrality, the access to information and thoroughly investigating the opportunities of digitisation. There is also a huge tension between security and freedom of information. Europe faces the danger of tending to opt for laws as a response to incidents, rather than on a strategic and principled basis."
dpa: Commissioner Guenther Oettinger is in charge of the digital economy and society. He wants to tax non-EU internet companies.
Schaake: "Oettinger seems to be the voice of vested interests, as his points often reflect the ones of publishers. Maybe he needs more time to get into the subject.
I have more sympathy for Ansip's line. His plans will get a lot more support from civil society than Oettinger's."