View from Brussels: MEPs call for funding focus to favour green transport
Major European transport infrastructure projects should focus on sustainable methods of travel in order to get funding from the EU’s budget, lawmakers said last week. Better military links and fewer delays are also on the wishlist.
Transport is one of the more visible proofs of Europe-wide harmony and unity. Intercity train travel and ferry links are physical reminders of how open borders now are. Conversely, dysfunctional transport networks also highlight any problems that exist.
That is why members of the European Parliament’s transport committee want to make sure that governments are directing enough funding to rail and sail projects, instead of just focusing on traffic-clogged highways.
Big infrastructure projects are governed by the EU’s Trans-European Transport rules (TEN-T), which lay out criteria that determine what is eligible for millions of euros in public money. TEN-T funding normally triggers a big injection of private capital.
Ongoing projects that are underpinned by EU cash include Rail Baltica, which hopes to link Warsaw to Tallinn by high-speed rail, the record-breaking Brenner Base Tunnel and the Madrid-Lisbon railway line.
TEN-T is up for renewal though, and MEPs will have their say on the updated rules. Lawmakers are keen to tag the funding with sustainability criteria, as well as other EU-wide objectives that transport can help achieve.
Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe are falling in every sector apart from transport, where roads are the main culprit. Further electrification of transport links is seen as a sure-fire way to cut pollution output.
That is why transport committee lawmakers voted in favour of all TEN-T core rail lines being electrified, which would allow all passenger trains to travel at 160 kilometres an hour and all cargo to top 100km/h.
MEPs say that all intermodal transportation should be carried out by train, inland waterway or shipping, and that roads should only be used for the last mile or when other transport options are not possible.
Their updated rulebook also says that all border crossings done by rail should be done in 15 minutes or less, which would be a mighty achievement for a sector that is unfortunately notorious for getting jammed up by red tape and bureaucracy.
“It is ambitious, but necessary if we want to succeed in shifting traffic from road to rail,” said Barbara Thaler, an MEP who helped write the updated proposal.
Funding will also be contingent on national governments drafting mobility plans that incorporate active mobility such as cycling and walking. This process will have to be completed by 2025.
In a carrot-and-stick approach, MEPs say that if major projects are not completed by certain deadlines – 2030 in the core network and 2050 across the wider network – the European Commission should be allowed to open legal cases where necessary.
“We are facing too much delay on the ground; Europe is starting to lag behind our international competitors, and the Union is suffering from too little investment and a lack of political will from the member states,” said another MEP, Dominique Riquet.
That point in particular could be a sticking point when lawmakers have to negotiate an agreement on the TEN-T reform with government delegates, who are likely to push back hard on any talk of punitive measures.
MEPs said that transport links with third-party countries at the EU’s borders should also be prioritised. In particular, lawmakers cite Ukraine – currently defending itself against an illegal invasion by Russia – and Moldova, which is struggling to ward off Kremlin influence.
The committee backs a plan to cut all funding and development of transport links with Russia and its ally, Belarus, as well as excluding non-EU construction companies from TEN-T projects if the Commission says they are a security risk.
Russia may not be the only target of the latter point, as China is also heavily involved in transport network expansion, particularly in the Western Balkans. This might complicate an already tense relationship if enacted.
Military mobility must also be considered when planning major infrastructure projects, according to MEPs. Short-notice troop movements should be facilitated across borders and the Commission will be asked to come up with an assessment of needs.
This point might again prove contentious among some member states, particularly those in the east of Europe that have an unpleasant history of troop movements across their territory.
Hungary in particular, which has blocked more ambitious attempts to provide EU-level military assistance to Ukraine, might see that proviso as too much for its liking.
A full sitting of MEPs is scheduled this week to give the transport committee the green light to enter talks with governments later in the year. Lawmakers will hope to broker a final deal by the end of the year or at least before March 2024 when campaigning for that year’s elections will kick off.
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