As of yesterday, 15 June 2017, roaming charges in the European Union no longer apply. The President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, the Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat (on behalf of the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union), and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker issued a triumphant joint statement, saying that the European Union is about bringing people together and making their lives easier.
The theme of bringing people together is often associated with yet another EU policy, namely the Enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans. In this blog I propose that the EU should expand its roam like at home policy to the Western Balkan countries so as to truly bring people together and make the lives of future EU citizens easier.
The end of roaming charges is a true success story much needed to boost the confidence of the citizens in the tumbling EU project, still reeling from numerous crises and the forthcoming Brexit talks.
In a nutshell, the users of any of the EU-based SIM cards traveling within all 28 EU member states or the three countries of the European Economic Area will be able to call, text and connect on their mobile devices at the same price as they pay at home. Apart from the important step towards the goal of creating a single digital market, the removal of roaming fees is expected to bring immediate relief to EU residents by scrapping high surcharges.
For instance, in 2007, operators were charging 0,49 EUR for every phone call, while now users will be charged according to their own phone plans. In 2008, EU-based operators charged a whopping 0,28 EUR per SMS sent, while as of yesterday this service is charged according to domestic rates.
However, citizens of the Western Balkan countries traveling to the EU are still faced with high roaming charges (1,2 EUR for voice calls and 0,25 EUR for SMS messages). Similarly, EU citizens will continue to pay roaming surcharges when coming to the Western Balkans.
The EU has recently been criticized for failing to supply much needed credibility to its promise for full membership to the Western Balkans. As the accession to the Balkans is not likely to take place in the foreseeable future, the support for the enlargement among the citizens of the six Western Balkan countries is slowly fading away. It would therefore be useful to extend a tangible reason to regain confidence in the EU project to Balkan citizens as well.
The end of roaming charges is precisely this - a tangible success story of the EU from which every European will enjoy its full benefit.
Naturally, the EU cannot dictate the fees of its operators for services outside the common market. However, the Western Balkan countries have all signed their Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) with the EU, which foresees a gradual liberalisation in the supply of services.
Secondly, one might wonder whether the government-controlled Western Balkan telecom providers would agree to such a proposal. Although the rent-seeking ruling elites will inevitably lose some financial benefits from charging high roaming tariffs, the political costs of refusing to agree to the idea of eliminating telecom charges with the EU would be much higher.
Also, it needs to be said that the EU has been very careful to ensure the tools to guard against the abuse of the rules of roaming-free policy. To begin with, operators have had two years to prepare for the end of roaming charges. According to the fair use policy, the operators may impose caps on how much mobile data can be used while abroad. Finally, the 'roam like at home' principle only works if the user spends more time at home than abroad. Naturally, all of these tools would be used in the case of regional telecom operators as well.
Finally, the talks over the elimination of roaming charges were not easy in the EU itself. They lasted ten years and involved numerous EU institutions, European governments and companies. But this only means that such talks with the Western Balkans should start as soon as possible.
The potential implementation of such a comprehensive agreement will fully be in line with the SAA as it would facilitate the gradual alignment of the region's legislation with EU Law and standards, thus creating a new impetus for the region’s economy in attracting investments. It will additionally prepare the region for its future participation in the EU’s single market. Most importantly it will genuinely bring people together as both EU citizens and citizens of the Western Balkan countries would save money when using their phones abroad, especially since there already exists an extensive circulation of people between the EU and the Western Balkans.