Late this afternoon (3+ hours of debate) and this evening (voting session) the plenary session of the Belgian Federal House of Representatives discussed and adopted the two Bills which are intended to transpose the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications.
The Rapporteur (Mr Roel Deseyn, of the opposition Flemish Christian Democrat party CD&V), gave a very extensive summary of the discussions that took place in the Committee on Infrastructure (7 sessions held over the past several months, see previous T-REGS news items), and presented a number of amendments to be considered by the plenary session. Discussions were also held on a couple of last-minute technical amendments (references to legislation triggering eligibility for the 'social tariff' component of universal service, and linguistic corrections).
Parliamentarians from majority and opposition parties intervened in the debate, as did the two Ministers responsible for telecommunications, Mr Verwilghen and Ms Vandenbossche. The debate ran for nearly 4 hours, was momentarily acrimonious, but was concluded by quasi-consensus.
Final voting results were:
- Bill 1425/19: 128 in favour, 0 against, 1 abstention.
- Bill 1426/1: same result (no actual vote was held).
T-REGS Notes (we attended the debate in the House):
1. The Bills were adopted almost unanimously, which suggests that the Federal Senate may decide not to ask to examine the first Bill - whilst the second Bill must in any case be examined by the Senate, but this could be done rapidly given the overwhelming majority that has been achieved in the House.
2. The major revelation of today's debate was that a Co-Operation Agreement has, after all, been conceptually agreed on 19 April 2005 between the Federal Government and the Communities of Belgium (see also multiple previous T-REGS news items, by typing 'Belgium' in the search box above, in particular covering a key ruling by the Court of Arbitration). Yesterday's agreement, the text and details of which need to be finalised and signed, and is therefore not publicly available, provides for telecommunications regulatory responsibilities at Community (Flemish, French, Germanophone) level, in addition to the Federal level, and apparently comprises a 'consensus rule' on issues that need to be assessed jointly by the various governmental/regulatory levels, including certain market definition and market analysis proceedings. It would appear that the Co-Operation Agreement does not cover rights-of-way (a Regional, as opposed to Community, responsibility) and also does not cover frequency management (which is a source of major contention). Further Co-Operation Agreements will presumably have to be concluded to address these two key areas. Nevertheless, the conclusion of this first Co-Operation Agreement may constitute a first step in lifting an institutional sword of Damocles that has been hanging over Belgian telecommunications policy and regulation for a considerable length of time.
3. Before the new Act on Electronic Communications can enter fully into force, several steps are required, including in particular: adoption of Bill 1426/1 by the Federal Senate (and possibly Bill 1425/19 as well), adoption of a new Bill (or Bills) to reflect the contents of the Co-Operation Agreement (if only to 'repair' the Laws on January 2003 on the regulatory authority BIPT in order to address the concerns of the Arbitration Court and following yesterday's agreement), and the adoption of no less than 83 mandatory Royal/Ministerial Decrees (the total number of implementation decrees amounts to nearly 200).
For a discussion of Belgian telecommunications law, policy and regulation, please contact Yves Blondeel.