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Europe and the ITU

By | July 1, 2008

      The European Commission has acted as an observer at committees and conferences of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) since 1988. Now a proposal is on the table for Europe to give the Commission a “negotiating mandate” for some ITU issues which could effectively put the European Union (EU) in the seat that individual European countries have held since the ITU was founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union.
      For more than a century individual European countries have negotiated for their positions on ITU issues. This new proposal could rely on the Commission in Brussels instead.
      Satellite operators are watching this carefully due to the enormous investments they have made under the current structure. They know how the current system works but are unsure what a higher level “European” approach could mean, especially for the registration of satellite orbital positions and frequencies. Debates over the ITU radio regulations often result in delicate compromises — the satellite sector fears its positions could be negotiated away under a new approach.
      The EU as a whole expresses positions both before and after ITU radio conferences. The existing EU electronic communications regulatory framework recognizes the ITU in the context of member state activity. For example, the current radio spectrum decision that is part of the regulatory framework says that EU radio spectrum activities should take “due account” of the ITU and that the EU must be represented adequately in those ITU activities.
      EU member states today participate in ITU conferences in their sovereign capacity as individual countries, but this is not to say they operate in a vacuum. While the member states sign ITU results as treaty-level obligations, they always condition these obligations on complying with the treaty establishing the EU, and the Commission participates in European conference preparatory meetings to make sure that general positions are consistent with overall EU policy.
      When the Commission proposed changes to the current framework in November, it did not go so far as to suggest any change to this approach. But proposals from the European Parliament could expand the Commission’s direct participation in ITU activities.
      This proposal is contained in a committee report that is still very much in play. We can expect to see the idea debated throughout the rest of this year.
      The idea so far is to amend the framework to say that “member states shall ensure the effective coordination of community interests in international organizations where radio spectrum use affects community policies.” Another amendment adds that whenever necessary to obtain this coordination, the Commission could propose to obtain a “negotiation mandate.”
      An explanatory statement for the report clears up what the proposal is about. It says that spectrum management remains a national issue, but “only an EU approach ensures that EU interests can be effectively defended at world level. As in the case of commercial policy, power should be conferred upon the community to conduct international negotiations based on clear mandates granted by the EU co-legislators.”
      This statement draws an analogy between ITU issues and trade issues that the European Commission negotiates in the World Trade Organization and other international contexts.  The Commission works through its Directorate General Trade on all such international issues on behalf of the European Union.
      DG Trade says on its Web site that “the EU’s 27 members negotiate as one on the international scene through the European Commission.” How would this work in the telecommunications field and in ITU radio conferences? DG Trade holds exclusive competence over trade policy due to specific parts of the EU treaty and common trade policy goes back to founding documents of the EU. Similar competence may not exist for telecommunications policy.
      For satellite operators and their customers and other interested parties it is too early to say what this means, and operators are considering the potential impact. Outputs from ITU radio conferences, including the ITU radio regulations and procedures for registering orbital slots and associated frequencies, are of critical importance to the satellite industry. The satellite sector would be right to be cautious about any changes to the system.
      The dedicated team within the European Commission that is the front line of EU observer status at ITU meetings is a fraction of the DG Trade team. One wonders if and how much of the ITU negotiations the European Parliament might want the Commission to take on.

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