Which would you rather have: a real-life reform that makes things easier for consumers and gives small business startups a big boost… or a cosmetic change to the preamble of a treaty that makes no difference to anyone or anything?
While Cameron and his eurosceptic backbenchers are fretting over the precise wording of a forty-year-old aspirational declaration whose legal and practical effect is precisely zero, the rest of us are getting on with implementing the kind of practical reforms that make Europe a better place to live, work, travel, and do business.
One big priority in this regard is the “digital single market”. Britain and its neighbours created a joint single market in goods and services decades ago, and have been broadening and deepening this market ever since — a project that has already boosted our economy by between £30 billion to £80 billion every year and is now benefiting every UK household by an annual average of £3000, according to the government’s own data.
But one area that’s lagged behind until recently is the single market in digital goods and services. Have you ever wondered why you can’t take your Netflix or Sky Movies subscription with you on holiday? Why you have to pay through the nose when you use mobile data outside your home country? Why you’re limited to choosing apps and music from your home app store — and forced to pay the price that’s set there? In a market where businesses can buy and sell across internal borders just as easily as they can buy and sell on their own domestic market, the digital arena has some catching up to do.
Earlier this year, national governments and MEPs finally agreed a date to mutually eliminate mobile roaming charges for EU citizens across the continent, including data as well as calls and texts. Much has been made of the benefits this will bring to holidaymakers, and rightly so. But it will also be a big boon to businesspeople, especially small companies looking to expand into the European market, for whom the possibility of ‘bill shock’ can be a major business risk.
And yesterday, the European Commission published new proposals to bring down more barriers:
Online streaming services such as Netflix and Sky Now will soon be portable across the EU, the European Commission has announced.
The plans are part of an overhaul of copyright laws, which the Commission says will make it easier for consumers to buy content online.
“We want to ensure the portability of content across borders,” said Andrus Ansip, vice president for the Digital Single Market. “People who legally buy content — films, books, football matches, TV series — must be able to carry it with them anywhere they go in Europe.”
The Commission said its aim was to “widen people’s access to cultural content”, as well as “support creators”. It expects its proposal to be approved in 2016 and implemented in 2017 — the same year roaming charges will be abolished in the EU. The plans would allow subscription-only content to be available to those “temporarily abroad”.
Of course, in Britain, the major players have reacted predictably. The anti-European tabloids virtually ignore it. The BBC reports it almost as a done deal, though in reality it’s just a proposal — albeit hopefully one which will be approved by elected governments and MEPs in time for a 2017 roll-out. And the Tories are claiming it as their personal victory, as if we had somehow forced our 27 neighbouring countries to abandon their principles and buy into the British way of doing things — forgetting that, as with everything, this kind of success only comes about through mutual agreement, collective will, open discussion and careful negotiation. And that, of course, is exactly why we have the EU in the first place.
But in the end, the posturing doesn’t matter. If this proposal is adopted, as looks likely, millions will benefit.
It seems hard to imagine how anyone could object to these kinds of practical reforms. But, of course, eurosceptics hate even this. Why? Because these kinds of concrete improvements simultaneously undermine three of their most odious campaign slogans:
- “We don’t need to make joint decisions in Brussels — we should run all our politics from back home in Westminster.” In fact, there are some problems that it’s impossible to solve unilaterally, and this is one of the most obvious.
- “Europe is a conspiracy of the elite. It brings no benefits to ordinary people.” Again, very obviously not true in this case, among many others.
- “The European single market is uncompetitive, stifling small businesses.” In fact, the very act of creating a single market is a massive boost for business and jobs — especially, in this case, digital startups.