EU transport chief: we must complete transport network to stay competitive

Bulc: "It is up to the Member States to decide which mechanisms they wish to use to trigger the market uptake of alternative fuel vehicles in general and of electric cars in particular." [European Parliament/Flickr]

The EU must press on with building the Trans-European Transport (TEN-T) core network, even though the costs are estimated at €750 billion and public funds will not be enough, Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc told EURACTIV Greece in an interview.

The Slovenian Commissioner also said it was up to the member states to decide which mechanisms they wish to use to encourage the use of alternative fuel vehicles in general and of electric cars in particular.

Violeta Bulc is the European Commissioner for Transport. She spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Stavros Mavrogenis.  

During the presentation of the “Europe on the Move” initiative you mentioned that “The EU has a unique opportunity to not only lead the modernisation of road transport at home but also globally”. Do you think this can be achieved with such a diverse level of modernisation among the member states?

The transport sector in the EU is generally very competitive. Many EU transport companies are among the biggest global players. We need to preserve this position and at the same time let the sector grow where there is room for it. With more common standards and digital solutions across the EU, transport will remain competitive internally, providing the opportunity for sectorial growth to all European economies, and providing a global example of modernisation of road transport.

How important is the transport sector for competitiveness and economic growth in the EU? What is your vision of transport infrastructure in the forthcoming years?

Transport is of vital importance for Europe. It helps to drive our economy and our society forward. Strong transport connections drive trade and mobility, stimulate job creation, boost economic growth and bring people together. It is a very concrete EU policy that addresses a wide series of aspects such as trade flows, passengers’ movements, and infrastructure buildings – essential to connect EU countries and remove bottlenecks. Only with strong connections will we be able to maintain competitiveness and see all the benefits of the transport sector for our economy and society to come through. That’s why we need to invest in transport infrastructure to complete the Trans-European Transport (TEN-T) core network and reach our vision of seamless, intelligent and sustainable mobility in the EU. We have calculated that €750 billion is needed to complete the TEN-T core network and €1.5 trillion for Europe’s wider mobility need. Public money alone will not be enough to match these needs and we’ll have to blend public and private funds and find innovative ways of financing.

In relation to the above, do you believe that connections in the broader Balkan area are sufficient to support economic growth in the region? Is this situation creating a disadvantage for the member states in the area?

What is missing in the Balkan areas is quality infrastructure and improved border-crossing management, which has also an impact on EU member states located in the southeastern part of Europe. This problem needs to be tackled first. The removal of cross-border bottlenecks is a clear priority addressed in the framework of the Western Balkan 6 (WB6) connectivity agenda. The quality of infrastructure – well-maintained road and rail networks, efficient logistic platforms – is almost as important, if not more, compared to the construction of new infrastructure. I am convinced that the recently adopted Transport Community Treaty with the Western Balkans will support the overall modernization of the region’s transport system, aligning it to the EU standards, adding also a clear benefit to its immediate EU neighbours.

Considering the Dieselgate scandal, the revelation that there are many millions of non-compliant polluting cars on the EU roads, affecting the health of EU citizens and the alleged cartel of German carmakers on diesel systems, which additional political and regulatory initiatives should the EU take in order to ensure compliance of the European auto industry with the Clean Power for Transport policies? Furthermore, do you think that the current package address efficiently the challenges of oil dependency of the transport sector, climate change and sustainable mobility?

In his State of the Union, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the car industry to come clean and make it right. In this regard, the Commission is acting simultaneously on three fronts. Firstly, better enforcement: we are determined to pursue the ongoing infringement procedures to ensure proper enforcement of the current type-approval legislation and to avoid that additional non-compliant cars enter the European market and aggravate the existing air quality problem. Secondly, better market surveillance: in addition to these enforcement actions, the Commission is constantly urging member states to step up their efforts and take action as far as bringing vehicles back into compliance with the type-approval rules. Last but not least, we need better rules for the future: the real driving emission Regulation is foreseen for spring next year. As of 1 September 2017 improved testing procedures – both in laboratory conditions (WTLP) and in real driving conditions (RDE) – have become mandatory for all new vehicle types.

A few members have already started to incentivize the use of electric cars mainly by subsidising their prices. Would you consider this as the best practice or would it be better to make more expensive the purchase and ownership of polluting cars?

It is up to the Member States to decide which mechanisms they wish to use to trigger the market uptake of alternative fuel vehicles in general and of electric cars in particular. In our view, the result is what counts.

Part of the Europe on the Move initiative is accelerating alternative fuel infrastructure deployment. However, there is still ambiguity on the specific targets and timeframe for the mass deployment of this infrastructure and six member states including Greece have not yet notified the Commission about their national policy framework under EU rules on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure (Directive 2014/94/EU). How does the Commission plan to reinforce the uptake of relevant infrastructure and to boost investment in this field?

The Commission is currently assessing the national policy frameworks received and will issue a report which will be part of a broader action plan on alternative fuels infrastructure, foreseen for the beginning of November.

The Commission has already outlined plans to introduce new emissions standards for cars and trucks. In this context and considering the policies of big countries like China, is the Commission planning to propose also low / zero-emission sales targets to drive the market in favour of zero-emissions cars?

At this point in time, it is not yet possible to provide a clear-cut answer and I would ask for some patience until the new CO2 emission standards draft regulation will be made public. This is also scheduled for early November.

Recently the Commission and the European Council collided on the amendment of the Energy Efficiency Directive about the obligation to install electric vehicles charging infrastructure in every new building. In the end, they agreed that this will take place on a voluntary basis. If the members states do not introduce similar requirements and the construction sector fails to act voluntarily, would you consider it necessary to introduce a relevant EU framework that will be a standard in the EU?

The draft amendment to the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive is already an attempt to regulate at EU level the obligation to have pre-cabling for electric vehicle recharging points in residential buildings and to have one recharging point for each 10 parking spaces in non-residential buildings.

The Commission has recently proposed a reform to tolling systems in order to make them smarter, more efficient and to promote cleaner vehicles. Since almost half of the member states are currently implementing time-based charging systems, how feasible do you think it is to adopt in the EU a harmonised toll system calculating charges on the basis of distance driven and CO2 emissions.

Time-based charging is currently in use in less than a third of the EU member states, while there has been a tendency in moving towards distance-based charging, at least for heavy goods vehicles. The issue is not if, but how fast this evolution will be. Road charging for light vehicles is not as developed, with many countries applying no charging at all – I see this as an opportunity to leapfrog the old system of vignettes while we’ll keep working along with member states to progress towards a fairer and more efficient transport system.

In Greece, for a long time, we have been fighting unsuccessfully to connect our islands, not only with the main ports but mainly among themselves. What would be your proposal in order to achieve sustainable and cost-effective coastal connections?

Public and private investments in transport infrastructures on the islands have considerably reduced the accessibility problems of the past. Connecting local nodes to TEN-T infrastructure is a priority in the European Structural and Investments Funds (ESIF) programming period 2014-20. Port infrastructure upgrades and better hinterland connections with the islands are actions pursued in the regional programmes. ESIF is investing € 75 million for transport infrastructures in the North and South Aegean Region. Another € 36 million is also targeted to actions for safety at sea. These actions should be continued.