Ombudsman to probe European Commission after O2 complaint

The European Ombudsman has said that he will investigate the European Commission's conduct in its investigation into mobile phone roaming charges. The inquiry follows a complaint by operator O2, which says it was not allowed to defend itself properly.

O2, which is owned by Spain's Telefonica, faces fines of millions of euros if the Commission finds it guilty of abusing its dominant market position and charging excessively for roaming.

In 2000 the Commission announced that it would investigate roaming charges, which are the fees charged by one operator for the right of customers of a foreign operator to use their mobile phone.

In 2001 the Commission opened proceedings against operators in the UK and Germany. In 2004 it wrote to O2 saying that its roaming charges to other operators had been excessive.

O2 has complained to the Ombudsman, claiming that it was not granted adequate rights to defend itself. The company says that it not only was not given proper access to files and information, but that it was not given enough time to mount a defence.

"The aim of the inquiry is to determine if there has been maladministration by the Commission," said a statement from the office of the Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros. "According to O2, the Commission did not grant proper rights of defence to the company in the framework of proceedings against O2. The Ombudsman has asked the Commission to respond to the company's allegations before 31 December 2006."

The Ombudsman investigates complaints of maladministration made by any person or organisation against any European Union body. It does not have the power to order EU bodies to do anything, but it can make recommendations. It could not, therefore, order the Commission to reverse any rulings it made.

The Commission is conducting a campaign against what it sees as high roaming charges. It has announced its intention to outlaw roaming charges altogether within the EU. It wants travellers to be charged the same price for making phone calls abroad as they would be at home, a move opposed by phone companies.