Wednesday, 1 July 2009

On Phone Chargers

The EU has managed to get the top 10 mobile phone companies to agree to adopt a single phone charger that will be compatible across their brands. The companies include:

"...Apple, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson – [and they] represent 90 percent of Europe's mobile phone market."

The story has been covered by Stephen Spillane and Gulf Stream Blues.

There will be no legislation to enforce this; the move is an agreement between the companies and it won't be enforceable in law. However, the agreement only came about when the EU applied pressure by threatening to introduce legislation in this area - which would probably pass in the Council and the European Parliament, just like the roaming charge cap.

The benefits of such a move will be mostly environmental, since there will be less electrical waste of old, incompatible chargers being thrown away, but there will also be benefits to the consumer in terms of convenience.

Dave Keating at Gulf Stream Blues touched on what could be one of the most interesting aspects of this story as it (might) develop:

"Since most of these companies also design phones in the US and the rest of the world, I would assume that this standardization will eventually spread to the rest of the world. After all, why would they make phones with different electrical input jacks specifically for Europe?"

If the single charger is adopted by these companies outside of the EU, it will demonstrate the economic power that comes with the single market. As the economy globalises, it's likely that market access will become more essential in the calculations of the economic and political consequences of regulation. The bigger the market, the more insulated that market is from the negative economic effect of regulation: so it's easier for big markets such as the EU to set higher standards than small (and sometimes even medium) states as the relative economic power of big companies is reduced when they want to ensure they have market access.

Not that the EU should go mad regulating, and I'm not denying that EU regulation can have negative effects on the economy - it all depends on the regulation, and views on particular examples of regulation will vary depending on political priorities. But the single market enables states to re-assert (some of) their political power and relevance at a time when economic power is growing and limiting the political options of states.

Another thing to note is that the Tories in the EP have welcomed this new move:

"British Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour, member of the consumer affairs committee in the European Parliament, also welcomed the agreement.

"The days of drawers full of useless old mobile phone chargers will soon be over. Common sense has prevailed," Mr Harbour stated.

"We will no longer have to worry about forgetting our chargers and having to ask around to find one that is compatible. This agreement will also encourage more chargers to be recycled, preventing electronic waste," he added."

Perhaps an attractive aspect of this deal for the Conservatives is that it was reached without any actual legislation (though it's still strange to hear the Tories hailing a European move as a victory for "common sense"), but it shows that there is recognition in the Conservative party that the single market is worth something as a working reality, and not just a free-market ideal to pay lip-service to - and what's more, there's a recognition that common rules/policies mean something.

Now it could easily be countered that the Tories could hardly mean anything else when they say they support the single market as you can't have a single market without common rules. Still, the recent political message of the Conservatives gives a different impression. If the Tories are serious about this new group, and are serious about the single market, they will have to show in their rhetoric that some decisions need to be made in Brussels. They also need - and this is a big step that they might never take - to accept that it follows that there should be some form of political contest in the EU, since the question of economic governance is a left-right issue. They will have to accept the value of politics while (if they remain committed to the ECR) rejecting political union itself.

A coherent political vision from the ECR will probably never occur to anyone within the group, let alone see the light of day, yet that is what they'll need if they don't want to be outflanked by withdrawlists and if they wish to avoid being cornered into policies that will weaken the single market itself. In other words, their political group at the very least needs to get political. Politics isn't bad, you know.

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