Why doesn't the EU have a road transport agency?
By Peter Teffer
The EU council, where member states meet, is divided over how the next emissions scandal should be prevented, with many member states opposing a proposal to increase EU oversight in the system of car approvals.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is considering centralisation, signalling a tough battle between the two institutions ahead.
According to a paper by the Slovak presidency of the council, there are “two blocks of countries” that appear divided on how to reform the type-approval system for motor vehicles, which is currently still mostly a national affair.
Ahead of a meeting of competitiveness ministers on Monday (28 November), the presidency wrote that a “significant number of delegations continue to express serious doubts on the added-value” of the European Commission's proposal to centralise the power to double-check the approvals of cars in Brussels.
But an EUobserver investigation into the Volkswagen emissions fraud, as well as several witnesses testifying before a European Parliament committee of inquiry into the Dieselgate scandal, shows the status quo is not working.
No authority feels responsible, conflicts of interests loom, and because a car approval acquired in one member state is valid in the entire bloc there is systemic encouragement for national authorities to be lax.
That's why several MEPs are suggesting there needs to be a dedicated European agency for road transport.
Air, sea, rail – but why not road?
The EU has close to 40 different agencies, and three of them, established in 2002 and 2004, deal specifically with the transport sector: the European Maritime Safety Agency, the European Aviation Safety Agency, and the European Railway Agency, renamed this year as European Union Agency for Railways.
It's a question then, why road transport did not also get its own EU agency in that period.
A spokesman for the International Road Transport Union (IRU) was puzzled by that question. But after asking around, he arrived at two explanations.
One: The internal market of the road transport sector was seen as already well-developed, contrary to the other transport sectors.
Two: There was a political goal to shift transport from road to rail, and if both had gotten an agency “it would have been seen as pro-road”, the spokesman said.
Still, it would have been only consistent to set up a road transport agency, considering the arguments used at the time to justify the agencies on transport by sea, air, and rail.
“A large number of legislative measures have been adopted in the [European] Community in order to enhance safety and prevent pollution in maritime transport," said the preamble of the legal text that set up the European Maritime Safety Agency in 2002.
"In order to be effective, such legislation must be applied in a proper and uniform manner throughout the Community,” the text said, adding that this was a reason to set up a “specialised expert body”.
Road transport legislation fulfils exactly the same criteria, but Europe's agencies are set up on a case-by-case basis. An attempt to lay down objective criteria for setting up agencies failed in 2006.
By then the attitude of member states towards the EU had begun to shift, after the expression of euroscepticism through French and Dutch No votes in EU referendums in 2005.
The past decade has seen national governments questioning European centralisation more often, to the result that the EU commission has also become more reluctant to propose it.
Guenther Verheugen, EU industry commissioner from 2004 to 2010, said he never proposed centralising the approval system at EU level because he thought it had no chance of being accepted by member states.
But it was discussed, he told members of the Dieselgate inquiry committee in the European Parliament, last August.
“And the conclusion was that this was an absolute no-go area. The idea was universally rejected,” he said.
The suggestion to set up on EU road transport agency did pop up more recently, but in a different context.
French and Romanian support
In 2014, during a ministerial discussion about social dumping, French transport minister Frederic Cuvillier suggested the EU set up just such an agency.
During the subsequent press conference, then transport commissioner Siim Kallas said he was open to the idea, but time shows he did not rally behind it wholeheartedly.
According to an EU source, transport ministers have not properly discussed the idea for several years, with only Romania suggesting creating such an agency a year ago. On Thursday (24 November), French environment minister Segolene Royal said she supported the idea.
The commission has been asked several times in non-binding declarations “to consider creating a European Road Transport Agency” by the European Parliament, most recently in August 2016. But so far the commission has not considered it officially.
Lots of advantages, but costly
The European Commission has briefly looked at whether or not it should propose to set up an agency to deal specifically with car approvals.
While the EU Type-Approval and Market Surveillance Agency, as it would be called, “was previously not considered a proportionate response”, the impact assessment accompanying the commission's reform proposal identified some notable advantages.
“The centralised type-approval system would drastically reduce the risks that are associated with the decentralised system in its current form,” the commission said.
“It would eliminate the possibility for type-approval shopping and ensure the harmonised application and enforcement of type-approval requirements across the EU.”
An agency could also “guarantee a level playing field for all manufacturers of automotive products and reduce ... safety and environmental risks”.
“The creation of a centralised agency would also facilitate a timely and effective response to a situation of non-compliance and would eliminate the need for a complex system of information exchange and coordination by reducing the number of relevant entities.”
But despite these pros, the European Commission also sees cons:
The commission estimated that an EU agency would cost between €40-50 million per year and that it would be difficult to free up that money in the existing budget.
It also said putting an agency in place would “go beyond what is strictly necessary to tackle the problem and could be seen as disproportionate”.
“While the VW case exposed weaknesses of the decentralised system in its current form, there is no evidence that a decentralised system as such cannot deliver the desired improvement,” it said.
The commission also said that abolishing the current decentralised system could lead to “considerable job losses in the technical services and their laboratories” in the member states.
According to the impact assessment, the disadvantages “clearly seem to outweigh the advantages”, and the option was discarded.
It is not yet clear whether a majority of the parliament supports an EU road transport agency. The first indication will be votes in the parliament's environment and transport committees on 29 November and 5 December respectively.
The lead committee will vote on the proposal on 26 January 2017.
If the parliament ends up supporting an EU transport agency, its lead negotiator should prepare for a fierce battle with council.
With the apparent difficulty the Slovak presidency is facing to reach a compromise between member states on the much less revolutionary commission proposal, it is difficult to conceive how the national governments will be convinced to give up even more power.