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Fresh debate for cheaper EU calls from Sweden

Swedish politicians welcomed a debate on mobile charges on Tuesday, after the EU's top decisionmaker on the digital market announced that roaming fees could be ditched across the union by 2017.

Fresh debate for cheaper EU calls from Sweden
Tourists using their mobile phones in Stockholm. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Mobile phone roaming is a hot topic in Sweden, as well as in the rest of the European Union, with holidaymakers complaining of hefty charges when they go abroad and foreign workers often forced to sign up to new domestic deals to avoid paying extra fees.

European Digital Economy Commissioner Günther Oettinger breathed new life into the long-running debate this week after he told reporters in Germany that he wanted to abolish the controversial fees within the next two years.

“From the second quarter of 2017, roaming fees in the EU will probably fall away,” he said.

Fredrick Federley, a Swedish MEP who is coordinator of the Liberal ALDE group on the industry committee and has long argued for roaming fees to be scrapped, cautiously welcomed the commissioner's comments.

“It's important that the commission pushes this issue as it's about creating opportunities for jobs and growth, but the problem is that the member states are holding back,” he told The Local on Tuesday.

Oettinger's announcement comes just over a month after the European Commission dropped plans to abolish roaming charges from 2016 after objections from telecoms companies in smaller member states.

But a new compromise had to be reached after consumers' organizations and the European Parliament protested vociferously.

“If the end of roaming comes in 2017, companies have a year longer compared with the old plans to conform to the new rules,” Oettinger said.

“And consumers will see yet more that they profit from the single market in telecoms. Roaming fees have already sunk a great deal.”

READ MORE: Anger as EU keeps mobile phone roaming fees

Oettinger believes that the EU must consolidate its telecoms market – pointing to the 280 companies across the union compared with four in the US.

“To become more competitive and consolidate their networks, many more companies will merge in the coming years,” he said.

“That should lead to the European telecoms industry playing a bigger role on the global stage. But competition has to be assured.”

And Swedish conservative MEP Gunnar Hökmark told The Local on Tuesday that he hoped the new deadline would set the stage for fixing the glitch in the system which means domestic carriers pay their counterparts in other countries wholesale charges for foreign mobile use by their customers.

“I hope that [by 2017] we will have laid the foundation for reasonable deals or coordination between European telecoms operators to remove extra costs between them, otherwise there's a risk that the cost is passed on to domestic calls,” he said, joining Oettinger in his calls for a pan-European telecoms market.

“The most important thing to me is structural reforms that give us coherent European networks where roaming is not needed at all. I will push such legislation to bring down the costs not just for calls but also for surfing, which is normally what is used by Swedish users.”

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Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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