On March 26 1995, the Schengen Agreement about open borders within the then “European Economic Community” (predecessor of the European Union) went into effect. From that day on, people crossing borders between initially seven countries didn’t have to undergo the usual border checks. Today, people living in or visiting 26 European countries do not have to show their passport or ID when crossing the border to another participating country (with a few temporary exceptions). The treaty must be considered a milestone for the internal integration of Europe. This week’s finalized decision by the European Parliament to end EU roaming surcharges has a similarly significant dimension.
After many years of tenacious negotiations, various setbacks and fierce resistance by the telecommunications carriers, customers of mobile operators from EU countries who travel to another EU country will, timely for the summer holidays, be able to call, send texts and use the Internet without additional charges. The target date of June 15 2017 will therefore go into the history books of European integration as March 26 1995 did previously.
According to numbers by Eurostat, in 2014 EU citizens did 1.2 billion trips for business or leisure. A quarter of these trips were visits to foreign countries. Considering that 15 percent of all EU citizens visited Spain, 11 percent visited France and 10 percent visited Italy (in 2013), it is safe to state that the end of roaming surcharges won’t just turn out to be privilege of a few.
Aside from the savings and convenience enhancements that come with the elimination of roaming surcharges, the decision also carries an important symbolic role: Aside from languages (and culture of course), one of the few remaining barriers between EU countries is disappearing; a barrier which few (except representatives of telecom firms) will be missing. Even passionate EU skeptics will appreciate the new comfort next time they travel to another EU country. Considering the internal political tension and outside attempts to weaken the union, the timing for this step could not be better. This is a move which, unlike others by Brussels, will be perceived by average people as tangibly beneficial.
Putting the political dimension aside, at the heart of the decision is one thing: digital mobility and freedom. Smartphone usage is no luxury occurrence anymore. It is a basic pillar of pretty much everyone’s daily life. Two years ago I was able to experience how revolutionary it feels to cross borders without worrying about roaming charges. That now all citizens of the European Union will be able to do that is truly a reason for celebrations.