24th Oct 2020

Brussels to unveil 'core' transport network in September

  • The commission approach could create fast lanes and slow lanes on the European grid (Photo: shugfy)

Getting from A to B in the European Union is not particularly easy. It can involve a swathe of transport modes, varying levels of service quality, good old congestion and many more kilometres than the crow flies.

Its largest airports are not directly connected. Its busiest ports are not backed up by efficient infrastructure for goods distribution, and super fast rail travel in one member state often stops at the border because the next member state runs a different electricity system.

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The EU recognised the problem many years ago. It first started talking about setting up a trans-European Network, connecting major roads, railways, cities, airports and ports in 1994. In 2004, after some legendary lobbying by member states, it agreed a list of 30 priority infrastructure projects, partly funded by the EU, to be completed by 2010.

Bar a few examples, the list as it stands today makes for sorry reading. It is a tribute to tardiness, empty public wallets, local vested interests and member states' habit of concentrating on their own transport back yard rather than on committing to cross-border projects. It is also clear than some projects were chosen as a result of astute lobbying rather than the overall EU transport benefits.

A commission discussion paper published in 2009 put it so: "Questions still arise, for example, as to the methodological soundness of their [the projects] selection..."

"All focus has been on the internal national objectives, not so much on cross-border," EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas told this website. "This is always when one country wants [a project] and another country doesn't want it. One country wants to get in and another country doesn't want to let other competitors in."

Betuweroute, a double track freight railway running from Rotterdam to Germany, is one such case. Although listed as one of the completed projects since 2007, the German part of the project is still not ready.

Environmental and other concerns also play a part. An inland waterway project running from Rotterdam to the Black Sea in Romania has been held up by environmental concerns and local authority objections in Germany and Austria. A tunnel from Turin to Lyon, expected to cut travel time by half, is the subject of ongoing protests due to worries it will spoil nature in the Alps.

The EU has in the past tried to improve the pace of the projects by appointing co-ordinators to mediate between countries and chivy the work along. It has also taken retracted allocated money from projects that are not getting off the ground.

Core and not so core

But in September 2011 it is going for a new approach. Instead of just the 30 projects which may or may not have anything to do with the wider goal, it will now publish a transport map.

The map will feature a "core" transport network and a "comprehensive network" - subsidiary infrastructure that feeds into the core network.

Brussels is hoping that having established the principle points of the EU's infrastructure and a revised methodology for choosing projects, then fighting around the choices will be lessened. It has already been working hard with member states behind the scenes so that there are no big surprises come the autumn.

Nevertheless, tussles are expected. "This will be a huge issue with a lot of nervousness," admits Kallas.

The proposals will have to be agreed by member states and the European Parliament. Liberal Belgian MEP Dirk Sterckx, an expert on the issue, agrees that there will be still be a lot of jostling despite the groundwork laid by the commission.

"Of course everyone will want to be in the core network. If you have a port and it is not in the core network, you are going to be less involved in things than if you are in it."

He added: "But it is a good thing that the commission has come up with a new set of criteria, saying look this is what we want to achieve. That is the way to go. But that's always difficult because some people are in, some people are out. And every country looks at its own interests so it's going to be a hard discussion."

One EU official explained how the process should work in theory: "Fundamentally, the choice of projects will be linked to whether something is on the core network. And then obviously beyond that you have to look at how bad the problems are on that particular network. If it's a very congested network, then obviously that would be a strong reason to upgrade it."

"We think it shouldn't be one of the more difficult proposals to get through. That said, it is highly political. It is very linked with money which is very close to people's hearts."

One major task for transport officials will be to try and keep the discussions on a trans-European network separate from parallel discussions on the EU's next multi-annual budget. If they become entwined the network discussions could take a year or two reach a conclusion.

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