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EUROPEAN UNION

Anger as EU keeps mobile roaming fees

A decision by EU governments not to end roaming mobile charges until the end of 2018 has prompted anger from consumer groups and EU politicians who had wanted the fees ditched this year.

Anger as EU keeps mobile roaming fees
Mobile phone use at airport. Photo: Shutterstock

"The Council is really disappointing 550 million EU citizens and is consciously holding back the development of the Digital Single Market," said Fredrick Federley, a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who is coordinator for the Liberal ALDE group on the industry committee.

"This is down to pressure from the mobile operators, who have had these charges as a milking cow for some time," he told The Local. 

Guillermo Beltrà, head of the legal and economic division at the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, was also frustrated.

“We are disappointed by the national governments’ lack of ambition to bring down once and for all one of the most important barriers to Europe’s Digital Single Market,” he said in a statement released to The Local. 

The group said governments had lacked the political will to take on telecom companies on their citizens’ behalf. 

“It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges,” said Beltrà. 

“The end of roaming has been in the making for a very long time, and this is something that telecoms have known and should be ready for. In fact, they are also to benefit from the new consumer demand that will emerge once roaming is abolished.”

The European Council, which represents the EU’s 28 member states, agreed this week that mobile phone users would be given a roaming allowance that allows cell phone use in other EU countries at domestic rates up to an as yet unspecified limit. Telecom companies would be allowed to levy roaming charges for any use beyond this limit, though at a lower rate than before. 

“We now expect the European Parliament to take a strong stance in the negotiations with the ministers for a final deal that will hopefully make roaming fees a thing of the past,” said Guillermo Beltrà. 

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly last year to end roaming costs by the end of this year. 

Gunnar Hökmark, a Swedish MEP, has long argued for roaming fees to be scrapped. He expects tough negotiations with national governments. 

“Some member states are defending national operators. Without naming any countries, some operators in the south are happy to get higher prices from users coming from the north,” he told The Local. 

He did however express some understanding for the delay. The creation of a pan-European network for telecom operators would ease the process of doing away with roaming fees, he said. 

As things stand, domestic carriers pay their counterparts in other countries wholesale charges for foreign mobile use by their customers. 

Abolishing roaming charges without first fixing this glitch in the system would risk resulting in higher domestic charges in many countries, which is something operators and national governments want to avoid, said Hökmark. 

“The most productive outcome of the negotiations would be the creation of a European operator network" to review the system of wholesale charges.  

Roaming fees for calls and data have dropped sharply in recent years after the European Commission took steps to eradicate the sort of “bill shocks” that often greeted travellers returning home from other EU countries.

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EUROPEAN UNION

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

Foreign nationals living across Europe regularly have to overcome hurdles with paperwork and red tape whether it's with residency or work permits or having professional qualifications recognised. But there is help at hand that many may not know about.

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

What is SOLVIT and what kind of problems can it help you solve?

Although the general principle is ‘freedom of movement’, people going to live to another country of the European Union, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein can have all sort of problems setting up.

These can include the transfer of a car bought in another EU country, the swapping of a driving license, the application for a non-EU spouse visa, and the procedure to set up a company. The good news is that help is available.

SOLVIT is a name few people are likely to have heard, despite having been around for 20 years.

It is a free online service to help individuals and businesses resolve problems they experience with administrations in the countries of the European single market, where people, goods, services and capital can move freely.

What sort of problems?

Created by the European Commission in 2002, the network of SOLVIT centres can help with anything related to European single market’s rights.

The single market countries have common rules to avoid technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free movement. But sometimes national, regional or local authorities do not apply these rules as intended causing problems to the people who depend on them.

It can be daunting to try and solve these issues across borders, even more so when another language is involved. In these cases, people can resort to SOLVIT centres to seek help.

How does it work?

Complaints can be submitted on the SOLVIT web page, which also provides the contact details of SOLVIT centres in all countries.

The central office (home centre) will check whether the problem falls within the SOLVIT’s remit, prepare the case and send it to the SOLVIT team (the lead centre) in the country where the problem has occurred, who will try to find a solution with the responsible authority.

The objective is to complete the procedure in 10 weeks from when the case is accepted by the lead centre. But according to a report by the European Commission less than 50 per cent of cases now meets that target, partly because of stretched resources in the face of growing demand.

Gerard de Graaf, the head of the EU Office in San Francisco, previously head of the team that created SOLVIT, wrote in the 20th anniversary report: “In 2001, it was clear that citizens and small businesses in particular needed hands-on help to overcome incorrect application of EU rules by national and local authorities.

“We had contact points in each member state but few problems ever got resolved and it was disheartening. We had the idea to set up instead problem-solving centres, connected via an internet-based, multilingual network… I still vividly remember the first cases going through the new system in 2002, and, even more so, the positive feedback we received: “I can finally reunite with my husband and children…”

In 20 years, the network has dealt with close to 29,000 cases. Only in 2021, 5,231 complaints were filed to the SOLVIT service (2,455 accepted) compared with 155 in the first year of operation.

How are countries doing?

The caseload varies between countries. In 2020 France handled the largest number of complaints, with 157 submitted by individuals and companies and 435 received from other Solvit centres. Germany followed with 131 cases lodged by individuals and companies and 214 received from other Solvit centres, Italy with 146 and 270 respectively, and Spain with 133 and 196.

Austria also had a relatively large number of cases, with 32 submitted complaints and 102 received. Sweden had 39 submitted and received 60, Denmark 51 and 22, and Norway 11 and 30.

Some of the common problems, the European Commission reports, were the recognition of professional qualifications, visa and residence rights, driving licences, pension rights and access to healthcare.

In 2020 difficulties included delays in exchanging information related to social security, as well as problems accessing healthcare and claiming unemployment benefits linked to COVID-19. Some of the problems in France were related to the social security reimbursement of medicine sold by parallel traders.

In terms of recognition of professional qualifications, there were difficulties for nurses who acquired part of their training in a non-EU country, for social paedagogical educators in Italy and for speech therapists in France.

Complaints about Sweden were related to the inclusion in the population register and the issuance of a personal identification number, unjustified delays to admit EU workers to the national social security system and to issue residence cards to their non-EU family members. This was reported also in Austria.

Several countries, including Norway, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany, applied unjustified conditions and refused short-term visas for non-EU family members of EU citizens.

If you need to submit a complaint via Solvit in the country where you are then click here for the details of how and where to submit it.

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