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Analysis

What the EU just did for you

by Michael Prest | 15.06.2017

That strangled question “What did the EU ever do for us?” received a decisive and welcome answer today: mobile roaming charges for phones have been abolished in the EU.

For the humble consumer across the EU it’s been a long battle, in which the European Commission has been the good guy taking on and finally overcoming the phone companies.  More than that, it illustrates what the single market – one of Theresa May’s red lines – means in practice.

Naturally, this being a digital matter, and despite the EU’s slogan “Roam like at home”, it’s not entirely plain dialing. You will still be charged for exceeding your contracted minutes, texts or data. There are “fair use” caveats that, say, limit the amount of data you can use before incurring extra charges. Different companies include different countries in their roaming lists – for example, the Channel Islands or Switzerland. And the new regulation only applies to travellers. If you call another EU country from home you will still probably incur extra costs. Even if you’re making a call from your mobile to another phone in the same foreign country you’re in, you could incur hefty bills.

Yet this is a major step forward. It brings the single market into every EU citizen’s pocket.  It makes the rather abstract – but very important – notion of the digital single market that much more concrete. The transforming role of digital technology in our society can hardly be exaggerated. It will be central to Europe’s development in the 21st century. The EU has done more than strike a blow for consumers. It has shown that real progress towards the digital single market can be made.

And that should give UK citizens pause for thought.  Until at least March 2019, when our notice to leave the EU runs out, we should be mostly spared the unfortunate seasonal stories of holiday makers returning to the UK only to be greeted by bills for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. But what happens after March 2019?

The EU’s abolition of roaming charges is implemented as a regulation, not a directive. That means it is not automatically incorporated into UK law. Will the UK’s redoubtable consumers rise up and demand that a similar provision is enacted into UK law if and when Brexit occurs? Will roaming charges be included in the negotiations, perhaps during the “transition” period? Who will enforce whatever agreement or law emerges and will it fall into the remit of the European Court of Justice?

How we are charged for the mobiles most of us own and many of us use elsewhere in the EU turns the personal into the political. It brings home in a tangible way what leaving the EU might mean for UK citizens. The single market, for all its imperfections, has real benefits for ordinary people. The government’s apparent determination to leave the single market jeopardises a lot more than the abolition of roaming charges.

There’s a consolation, however. When you’re sunning yourself on the beach this summer somewhere else in the EU it will be cheaper to call the prime minister and tell her what you think. You know what the EU did for you.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe