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EU moves to completely scrap mobile roaming charges

10 September 2016

European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday ordered officials to draw up new plans for the EU's landmark free mobile phone roaming policy after it ran into fierce criticism.

The commission announced the original "free roaming" plans with huge fanfare in early 2015, but when it unveiled the details this week consumer groups were outraged by a limit to just 90 days of free roaming per year.

"In light of the initial feedback received, President Juncker has instructed the services to withdraw that text and to work on a new proposal," according to a Commission statement.

"As we have promised, roaming charges will disappear. Nothing changes there," it said, downplaying the importance of the apparent U-turn on one of the Commission's most high profile priorities.

"The draft in question was about the modalities, and it was only a draft by the services," it said.

Consumer groups had assumed the Commission's pledge to end mobile roaming charges - charges when people use their phone outside their home country - meant exactly that, without conditions or caveats.

As a result, they responded angrily to the 90-day "fair use" limit, charging that Brussels had caved in to the powerful telecom companies for whom roaming charges have long been a lucrative source of extra income.

Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein insisted on Friday that the decision was perfectly routine, that Juncker had not been fully aware of all the details and when he had seen them and the reaction, had asked officials to try again.

The overall roaming plan was a "major success" and the review concerned the "modalities" only, not the objective, Winterstein told a press briefing.

"It was simply not good enough for our president (Juncker) therefore he instructed us to work harder, try harder and come back with something better," he added.

The spokesman declined to give any details about what might be included in the new draft, stressing instead that the Commission was absolutely committed to ending roaming charges by June 2017 as planned.

The decision may prove embarrassing for Juncker as he prepares his annual State of the Union address to Parliament next week when he will try to rally support for the EU project in the wake of Britain's shock vote to quit the bloc.

The commission had made the end of roaming charges a top priority, promising to remedy a constant cause of complaint from consumers returning home from holiday to find they have run up huge bills after using their mobile phones abroad.

EU Commissioner for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip described the end of roaming fees "as one of the best achievements of the European Union in the last few years."

As for the 90-day limit, that was needed to "strike the right balance" between consumers and companies so as to ensure continued investment, Ansip said when announcing the plans on Wednesday.

Manfred Weber, head of the European People's Party, the largest in the European Parliament and the one to which Juncker belongs, welcomed the decision and claimed it resulted from EPP pressure.

"The pressure from the EPP group bears fruit. We are fighting for the end of roaming fees for consumers in 2017 and not for solutions with backdoors," Weber said in a statement.

"This is what we have promised to the people and we keep this promise. We expect that the commission will give a strong signal for that next week," he added.

But the telecoms industry defended the Commission's original 90-day proposal as right.

"We believe that the fair use clause is essential to the proper functioning of European telecom markets," the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association said in a statement.

"The fair use clause constitutes a safeguard to avoid abuses, which is also in the interest of consumers."

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