This article was amended on 19 April 2022.
On 17 March 2022, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administration (CEPT) indefinitely suspended the memberships of Russia and Belarus, after a proposal that received support from 34 of the CEPT’s members. The decision was taken in the context of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022.
Established in 1959, the CEPT comprises the post and telecommunication regulators around Europe. Since its inception, the organisation has expanded to 46 countries as of March 2022, with the Russian Federation joining in 1994 and Belarus in 2003. The organisation allows policy makers and regulators across Europe to collaborate and harmonise telecommunication, radio spectrum, and postal regulations in order to improve efficiency and co-ordination for the betterment of European society.
How useful is the suspension?
The action is certainly understandable and, regardless of the suspension, technical operations between Russia, Belarus and CEPT members will need to continue in some measure. The suspension itself, therefore, carries little immediate effect, but does restrict the CEPT mission to harmonise cross-border communication procedures.
The suspension from this technical multilateral group will likely add fuel to the ‘West hates Russia’ propaganda that Putin is pushing across his country. While various financial sanctions from the international community have worked in harming the Russian economy, CEPT’s suspension of that administration’s services has the potential to affect the ability of Europe’s citizen-engineers to create useful links during and after the current conflict.
Is CEPT becoming politicised?
Despite being formed among tensions of the Cold War, the CEPT has mostly succeeded in remaining an objective administrative forum of technical and policy experts, exempt from overt political control. That’s not to say that significant differences have not existed between members, and that attempts have been made by some to subvert consensus and steer CEPT policy for political reasons. However, the organisation’s decision to suspend Russia and Belarus changes the traditional neutrality of the position it occupies, presenting the CEPT’s first notable political action in memory. It also raises the question: Why Now? Did the invasion of Georgia in 2008 not warrant Russia’s suspension, or its 2014 annexation of Crimea? Despite the considerable weight of the action, the brief announcement published by CEPT provides no further context for the decision, nor makes any mention of Ukraine.
It could be unhelpful to co-mingle cross-border telecommunication and postal services with politics: doing so risks affecting the services of all CEPT members, not only those of suspended members. If the wider community begin to view the CEPT as an organisation where political ends can be meted out, this could have implications for how they view the purposefully objective ITU, which would certainly hinder future radio-spectrum and administrative negotiations. At no point during the Cold War was Russia, despite its many proxy wars, suspended from the ITU. The consequences of this suspension could be much broader than anticipated.
The motion to suspend Russia and Belarus begs the question of whether member suspension will become common practice, if other countries do not adhere to certain thresholds of decency in the future. This remains to be seen, however if the CEPT and other ITU bodies do begin to take a more active role in reflecting wider political tensions, it could limit all manner of technical cooperation, and reduced telecommunication and postal service issues will unnecessarily affect citizen welfare. Satellite and cross-border frequency co-ordination will be immediate and visible casualties of this new order. But more subtly, international treaty conferences will become increasingly combative as administrations attempt to settle unrelated scores.
Further, the two nations were suspended indefinitely, with no clear standard they will need to meet to for readmission. It is certain, however, that if either were to be readmitted to the CEPT in the future, agreements struck in their absence would likely need to be reopened and even renegotiated, which would be a lengthy and challenging process for the CEPT and its members, and create market uncertainty that was never intended.
While the intention to champion European comity over violence is laudable, the balance of risk for all stakeholders, citizens, governments and commercial actors, demands a long view on events. And where that view does not change the decision, all decisions have consequences, and this one will demand mitigations that are still in development.
Access Partnership is closely monitoring all development regarding CEPT’s suspension of the Russian Federation and Belarus. For more information regarding this matter please contact Michael Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.