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Wearing a black lace dress and a pink silk scarf, Viviane Reding beams for the camera next to a pouting Sophia Loren.

With a penchant for hobnobbing with stars such as the Italian actress, frequent visits to the Cannes film festival and an immaculate coiffure, the European Commissioner for information society and media is sometimes seen in Brussels as style-over-substance.

But it would be a mistake to assume that just because the 55-year-old Luxembourger enjoys using the showbiz scene to promote Europe’s audiovisual industry she does not also wield great power over the telecoms and media sectors.

Ms Reding is the force behind three legislative shake-ups intended to reshape the industries she oversees.

First, she wants to scrap “roaming” fees, the surcharges customers pay to use their mobile phones abroad.

Second, she intends by December to propose a review of the rules governing Europe’s liberalised telecoms market, which has an annual turnover of €300bn.

Last, she will attempt to salvage her much-criticised plan to update TV advertising rules to take account of the new media era.

The challenge she faces is to implement changes without stifling industry expansion, innovation and profitability.

Ms Reding’s assault on roaming fees, taps into long-standing frustration over the high charges mobile operators levy on customers who travel around Europe.

As she said when she unveiled the plan in March: “It is unacceptable that consumers are punished in their phone bill just for crossing a border within the EU.”

The woman-of-the-people approach has allowed the former journalist to make headlines and show the EU acting in its citizens’ interests.

But mobile operators claim her plan is ill-considered, of questionable legality and was announced before an impact assessment for the sector.

Roaming is a high-margin activity that accounts for 10-20 per cent of mobile operators’ profits: they warn of price rises for other services to compensate.

Even national telecoms regulators have called for lower prices but shied away from backing the legislative plan, on which Ms Reding is running a public consultation.

Although her aides deny it, many people believe that if the industry rapidly cut fees in response to the commissioner’s plans, Ms Reding would shelve the legislation (which she is due officially to propose in July) and claim victory for the consumer.

As one telecoms lawyer says: “I think she thinks the threat of legal action will do the trick. Otherwise, it is going to be incredibly complicated for her to regulate.”

Ms Reding is based in Brussels, where she works in an office lined with copies of cartoons of herself, and photos of her meeting leaders such as Pope John Paul II and President George W. Bush.

After earning a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, she became a centre-right parliamentarian in Luxembourg in 1979 and editorial writer on the Luxemburger Wort newspaper.

Ms Reding was a European parliamentarian before taking the culture and education portfolio in the European Commission from 1999-2004, where she always strove to make headlines.

One former colleague says: “She was always a dynamic woman who knew exactly what she wanted. Some people thought she was haughty, although I didn’t find that the case.”

Although she is not known for being a visionary, those that have worked with her say that she picks her priorities and gets things done.

This ability may help in what is likely to be her biggest challenge yet.

Ms Reding must propose a review of the regulatory framework, which lays down rules to ensure telecoms and internet companies operate in a competitive market.

She will suggest which of the 18 technical markets no longer need regulation because they are deemed to have effective competition, a move that will have wide-ranging ramifications for the sector.

The proposal will put her at the centre of a debate between those that believe in shielding former monopolistic incumbents and others who want to ensure a competitive European marketplace. She is already engaged in a bruising encounter with Germany over its plans to give Deutsche Telekom a regulatory holiday for its ultra-high speed broadband network.

More broadly, she will consider ways to permit companies to operate across the EU using a single licence, allowing them to choose in which market they are regulated.

Most controversially, she will suggest measures to give Brussels greater control over way national authorities apply rules to regulate telecoms companies.

She could seek greater power to intervene in national regulators’ decisions and force speedier action in an effort to ensure competition.

Ms Reding will hope this review goes more smoothly than the overhaul of European advertising TV rules that she presented in December.

Critics said the plan was muddled, unnecessarily extended regulation to the internet and created grave uncertainty in the industry.

It will be a challenge for her three proposals to be adopted without big changes by the European parliament and member states. But Ms Reding will certainly make the headlines as she tries.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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