IT'S not often that the European Union can claim credit for reducing the cost of living and making life easier. The reverse is more often said to be the case, whether that assertion is justified or not. But this week the European Parliament has voted strongly for a European Commission proposal to cap the cost of making or receiving a mobile telephone call from another European country, the so-called “roaming” charge. There are almost 500 million mobile phone subscribers in Europe of whom about 150 million use roaming services. Among the main beneficiaries of this change will be tourists: a typical four-minute call from Spain to Britain currently costs about four pounds and will drop to less than half that under the new arrangement with further reductions expected in subsequent years.

The EU has been able to take this initiative because it could show that charges were not standarised throughout the Union and that in some cases people were paying four times as much for a roaming call as for their domestic calls. The mobile telephone operators have fought this change, arguing that their customers' main concern is with the cost of calls in their own country, and they have been supported by the British, French and Spanish governments. Although the EU cannot control costs in individual member states it must urge national governments to ensure that the mobile operating companies do not increase local charges to compensate for reductions in their lucrative roaming trade.