As Britain prepares to go to the polls to decide its future in Europe, perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments that the Remain campaign has on its side is the one about mobile roaming charges. Forget all of the abstract complexities about how much Britain pays in, or what membership does to the economy - roaming charges are something consumers understand, because we all have to deal with them whenever we go abroad.
You might have noticed that over the last few years roaming abroad, including making calls, sending text messages and using data, has become significantly cheaper. And this is due in large part to the European Union.
Related: Roaming Charges Compared – Do Vodafone, Three, O2, EE or Others Offer the Best Holiday Deals?
It is one of the few connections British citizens have with Brussels that feels like something actually tangible. And the Remain campaign knows this, hence why it has been pushing this message hard.
— Stronger In (@StrongerIn) May 26, 2016
So as Britain prepares to vote on its future, it is a pertinent question to ask: What will happen to our roaming fees if Britain calls it quits?
The Digital Single Market
In the bad old days, taking a trip to the continent would cost a bomb, with it even costing money to receive calls, let alone make them. Over the last few years, roaming within the EU has become much cheaper.
The reason this has happened isn’t just market forces, but is thanks to the guiding principle of the European Union. The idea behind the EU is to create a “single market”, where companies from one country can trade freely with others, with no barriers to making transactions between them possible. And the so-called “digital single market” is an extension of this. The EU’s belief is that roaming charges create barriers by dissuading us from using our phones when travelling abroad, creating a barrier to doing business in Europe. So if we want to make it easy for Brits to go to France or any of the other 26 member states to strike business deals, these costs should be eliminated.
Since the measures were passed through the European Parliament in October 2015, costs have steadily fallen every year – the eventual destination being that from the 15th June 2017, there will be no roaming charges whatsoever. You’ll be able to call, text, and crucially use data, just as you would at home. As things currently stand, as of 30th April 2016 the roaming premiums allowed have been capped at €0.05 (4 pence) per minute for a calls, €0.02 (2 pence) per text, or €0.05 (4 pence) per MB of data downloaded.
According to the European Commission, since the EU first started taking action on roaming charges in 2007, the costs of roaming have been slashed by over 80 per cent.
Which, even the most Eurosceptic person would surely have to admit, is great news for us.
What would Brexit mean for Roaming?
So what if Britain votes to Leave on June 23rd? Will roaming fees hike back up? Will we lose the prospect of no roaming fees whatsoever, when the new regulations come into force next year?
Sadly, none of the major UK network were particularly keen to talk about what might happen. An O2 spokesperson told me that “It’s too early to predict what may happen to roaming charges if the UK were to leave the EU.” Before dutifully adding, “We will continue to offer competitive prices to our customers who use their mobile device when they travel overseas whatever the outcome.”
But for how long Three? For how long?
EE, which was recently bought by BT, similarly wouldn’t be drawn on whether a Brexit might hit roaming fees. A spokesperson told me that "Because of the UK's membership of the EU, BT and EE have been able to offer our customers lower charges, including inclusive roaming plans and data charges that are over 90 per cent lower for Britons travelling on the continent.”
The latter, at least, certainly implies that this could change in the event of Brexit.
But while their press offices were largely keeping schtum, in terms of the broader question of whether EU membership is good or bad, the CEOs of both companies have publicly backed Remain. O2 CEO Ronan Dunne recently signed a letter to The Times from business leaders warning against Brexit, and BT’s CEO Gavin Patterson has said Brexit would send us back to a “bygone era”. Whether they’re speaking in the interests of consumers or their companies though, is an open question.
I also asked the European Commission what would happen to roaming if we Brexit, but perhaps sensing how politically sensitive it is, it wouldn’t comment on “what may or may not happen” after the referendum. This doesn’t mean however that we can’t do some informed speculation based on the referendum campaign so far.
If we do vote to Leave on June 23rd, what happens to roaming will depend on what Britain’s post-separation deal with Europe is. Throughout the national campaign we’ve seen various figures in the Leave campaign propose a number of different models for our future relationship with the continent.
For example, if we quit the EU but remain in the single market (the so-called “Norway option”), we would surely retain the favourable roaming arrangements. Though whether Brexit Britain would actually go for the Norway option isn’t clear, as this would also mean we’d have to continue to tolerate freedom of movement and a tonne of European laws (arguably the biggest reasons we’re having a referendum in the first place).
If we went for a more bespoke deal, similar to Switzerland, it is conceivable that we could negotiate a good roaming deal – but we’d be in a poor negotiating position to do so. If we make no formal deal with Europe whatsoever, as will be the case immediately after separation, roaming fees will probably shoot back up as there will be no legal mechanism to prevent them.
So can we know anything for sure? Sadly, there isn’t an easy answer. As with much of what the Leave campaign says, we simply can't say definitively what will happen to roaming fees if Britain votes to Leave on June 23rd. Definitely one to ponder when you head to your local polling station later this week.