Brussels Behind the Scenes: Guilty as charged

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Guilty as charged

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAM MORGAN

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Guilty as charged

The EU has finally agreed to impose a universal phone charger on the electronics industry, hopefully signalling the end of cable clutter and power sockets that are not compatible with devices. But is it actually important?

European Parliament lawmakers called for a single charger for electronic devices more than a decade ago but the idea never left the drawing board. That is until the current European Commission decided it was time to do something about it.

Under a plan published late last year, the EU executive said that USB-C should be the standard port and that factors like fast-charging tech should be harmonised. Devices should also be sold without a charger included.

All of this came about because there was an explicit link with the Commission’s flagship policy, the driving political force behind the administration, the Green Deal. Chargers create waste and unnecessary waste is now unacceptable in our new sustainability-minded world.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


 

The EU was also in the right place to annoy the main manufacturer that will be inconvenienced by the new rules: Apple. After a high profile tax case against the US firm that has soured relations, the Commission does not really have to keep the iPhone maker sweet.

Initially, the new rules will kick in by 2024 and govern smaller devices like smartphones and tablet computers, before moving onto larger, more power-hungry electronics like laptops after a transition period.

Apple has long insisted that the rules would stifle innovation if signed into law. Its ‘lightning port’ technology is exclusive to its products but will have to be replaced on any new devices if the firm wants to sell them in the single market.

Far from curbing Apple’s innovation, the common charger requirement should and probably will prod the smartphonemonger into finally nailing wireless charging.

It is not a new technology by any means, the current generation of phones are wireless-enabled but there are still drawbacks that firms have not really addressed with any particular gusto.

Firstly, consumers hear ‘wireless’ and mistakenly think the phone can be recharged remotely or near a port. That is not the case. Devices have to be placed on a charging pad and cannot be removed. If they are, charging stops.

Secondly, charging takes a lot longer than cabled charging. The current selection of fast chargers can replenish a new battery fully in an hour and a half and can juice a dead phone enough to turn it on in under two minutes.

In the same way that electric vehicles are only now starting to get over the hangover of ‘range anxiety’ and slow charging times, consumers will not accept longer charge times than they are now used to.

That is why the smartest brains in the biz will now be forced to get the technology working right, now that the EU has basically regulated it in through the back door.

 

Everything is geopolitics

France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, have enthusiastically trumpeted the agreement on a common-charger – which admittedly has rocketed its way through the normally-Labyrinthine EU legislative process – as a major victory.

As well as the eco-bonus points, the French presidency of the EU has pointed to the cost-savings promised by the new rules, which could amount to around a quarter of a billion euros per year.

Exciting numbers. Until you work out that this means a theoretically saving of about 50 cents per year. Not exactly meaningful at a time when inflation and utility bills are draining savings and putting households beneath the breadline.

It is also hard to imagine a world in which this was not going to be the logical outcome eventually. The number of different charger types has already massively shrunk down since MEPs first called for action back in 2009.

Apple may have dragged its feet for a couple more iPhones but it is more realistically to say that the EU has at most just sped up what was already a natural evolution.

France’s EU presidency is drawing to a close and has only one real last chance to nail a proper victory: the environment and energy council meetings on 27 and 28 June, where crucial elements of climate policy need to be decided.

But as the European Parliament showed us this week, agreements are no sure thing. MEPs could not find a majority for the very reforms the Council will look into at the end of the month.

If the French cannot shepherd deals across the line and set up trilateral talks for the Czech and Swedish presidencies to chair at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023, it will be a defeat for Macron.

Brexit, the gift that keeps on giving, is also rearing its head. A UK government spokesperson confirmed this week that Westminster will not mirror the EU’s decision. But it is a safe bet to assume that this stance will change sooner rather than later.

First reason to think so is Northern Ireland. Under the protocol signed by both the EU and Boris Johnson’s government, the new single-charger rules would apply to Northern Ireland, given its special status within the internal market.

Johnson is still considering whether to introduce legislation that will essentially null and void the protocol. His recent survival of a no-confidence vote within his party may affect his thinking on the matter but it is still reportedly due sometime next week.

The second reason to think so is quite simple. Apple are not going to split their manufacturing and design processes into two separate streams, so that the UK market – 65 million people – gets a separate iPhone model to the EU – 450 million people.

It is another case of where logic and common sense clearly suggest that aligning with the EU would be the smart and hassle-free thing to do. It is also another case of Boris Johnson’s government being pathologically unable to do so. Plus ça change.

 

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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