View from City Road: Europe's number unobtainable

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The Independent Online
It is an odd paradox, isn't it? To most Europeans, Britain is the odd one out, the country incapable of conforming to the rules and needs of European union. To most British businesses, it is the other way round; it is the Europeans who cannot and will not accept the proper traditions of open competition and free trade. France, and to a lesser extent Germany, seem to preach European union on the one hand while practising national self-interest on the other.

In no other industry is this more apparent than telecommunications. Sir Iain Vallance, chairman of British Telecom, has been going on about it for years; he was at it again yesterday in a speech to the European Policy Forum in London. This time he went farther than ever. He wants much more than liberalisation of voice telephony by 1998 - which in theory has already been agreed. Nothing short of full liberalisation of infrastructure as well, giving choice of networks to customers and competing service operators, will satisfy him now. To achieve an open market with consistent standards, he also proposes a single pan- European regulator.

It hardly needs saying that to most European telecoms companies and many of its leading politicians too, this remains anathema. Yet it is plainly what European business wants. Independent research commissioned by BT in eight European countries last year showed that businessmen regard liberalisation of telecommunications as a key issue for their future success and prosperity. Most of Europe nevertheless seems intent on dragging its feet.

Some national telephone monopolies and some governments will use every device they can to keep the competition out.

History bears out Sir Iain's fears. The market for telecommunications equipment and some services is already supposed to be open to competition. There is also supposed to be harmonisation of the way in which telephone lines are leased. The reality is that implementation is patchy; there seems little hope of speeding things up because in many cases the will is not there.

There are grand plans to have the voice telephony market open in 1998. Judging on progress to date, only the naive can believe that this will, in practice, take place. Nor is there much hope that the telephone infrastructure across Europe will become more open in the near future unless there is a much greater push, a strong and determined initiative.

As Sir Iain rightly points out, there are many highly influential voices within Europe trying to slow down the pace of change. All the more reason for ensuring that Britain is included in the inner core of EU decision-making.