EU transport nominee wants ‘bigger money’, fewer projects

Siim Kallas, the EU’s commissioner-designate for transport, vowed to defend a strategic vision at a European Parliament hearing on Thursday (14 January), saying he wanted EU money to be spent on large transport infrastructure projects rather than small ones.

“There is too little money spent on little projects and not enough on big ones,” the Estonian told MEPs in the Parliament’s transport and tourism committee. 

“We need today a much more strategic transport investment policy,” the commissioner stressed, admitting however that money was “limited”.

“I will not concentrate today on very concrete projects,” Kallas added when pressed by MEPs to elaborate, arguing he first needed to agree “a methodology” to define which projects would receive the scarce EU funding.

A review of the EU’s transport infrastructure is expected this year, including a revision of the 30 priority projects defined in 2004, which are mainly in the rail sector. 

However, a full-scale budgetary review is not due before negotiations start on the EU’s long-term financial planning next year, Kallas cautioned, adding that it was “not only public money that can solve the problem”.

“I don’t have any miracles,” he said at a press conference after the hearing. “We will discuss this methodology in the spring in Saragossa,” he added in response to a question from EURACTIV, saying he expected an “eternal fight” with member states on how to define the final project list.

“True discussion about financial perspectives will only start in 2011,” Kallas indicated, saying big transport infrastructure projects could only be considered afterwards.

Reducing CO2 ‘our ultimate goal’

Speaking in hesitant English and sometimes searching for the right words, Kallas nevertheless expressed strong conviction over his objective to reduce the environmental impact of transport.

“Decarbonisation is our ultimate goal. This is not debatable,” he said, referring to the EU’s pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020. 

But he underlined that EU policymakers “must be equally be concerned by business development and quality of service” as well as social issues. 

Responding to a Green MEP from Germany who argued that transport was “too cheap,” Kallas responded in a nuanced manner, saying consumers needed to be taken into consideration too.

“It is not a popular idea at all to raise prices,” Kallas said in response to calls to charge airlines and trucks to generate funding to support greener transport modes such as rail. 

“I would consider a rational share of the burden for different transport modes,” he added cautiously, saying he saw “political obstacles” ahead on the proposed ‘Eurovignette’ Directive, which would allow member states to charge trucks for the noise, pollution and congestion they cause (EURACTIV 01/04/09).

Towards online booking systems for trains?

To increase investment in railways, Kallas instead suggested using more of the EU’s regional funding, which he said “is very much going to the roads at the moment”. He added that he “supported the Parliament’s objectives to invest more in railways” and heeded their request for a commitment of 40% of the EU transport budget to the rail sector.

But he also underlined the responsibilities of the member states and regions in making their own decisions. “We cannot dictate to member states and local municipalities” how they should invest, Kallas said.

The Estonian showed enthusiasm towards one MEP’s suggestion to harmonise online booking systems for trains on the Internet, saying he agreed that rail was “decades behind” aviation in that respect.

“It is awful and I can’t understand why we can’t even find timetables on the Internet,” Kallas said.

Aviation emissions

To reduce emissions from the aviation sector, Kallas stressed that “much more money” was needed for Sesar, the EU’s air traffic management system, which is expected to reduce flight times by making air traffic more efficient. 

But he rejected suggestions to use money from the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), saying ETS revenue is “clearly in the hands of the member states”. Initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of specific modes of transport “must be financed by the users” as a matter of principle, he stressed.

Freight sector: Co-modality and gigaliners

In the freight sector, reducing emissions can also be achieved by supporting other modes of transport, Kallas said, referring to inland waterways, which “are very cheap and very clean”.

However, this only works “when in combination with other transport modes,” for specific “corridors” and where there are “connections with sea ports,” he said, referring to the concept of “co-modality”.

Asked to express his views on “gigaliners,” trucks of up to 25m long and weighing up to 60 tonnes, Kallas expressed a personal distaste: “If you ask me, personally, I am afraid,” he said.

“I feel uncomfortable on the roads if I see a big truck coming. This is fear.” However, “some people are very enthusiastic about it,” he noted, “so let’s talk”. 

Pursuing ‘vigorous liberalisation,’ within EU rules

Pressed to detail his views on competition in the transport sector, Kallas said he “will vigorously pursue further liberalisation” but said it “must be accompanied with high service quality,” safety and social standards.

“The liberal approach works fine in a fair economic environment,” he said, underlining that “there are some rules” that need to be respected for “legal certainty”. A “fair legal environment” is crucial to make competition work, Kallas stressed.

The Estonian rejected attacks by socialist MEPs who pointed to increased concentration on the aviation sector and asked whether Europe was not “turning old monopolies into new ones”. 

“Liberalisation has produced good results in aviation,” Kallas answered, admitting that “concentration has increased” in the sector. “Of course it should be assessed and I am not euphoric on liberalisation,” he added.

But “the situation is not bad,” he said, underlining that fair competition should also come with high quality of service and “social standards as well”.

Road safety: The end of impunity

Kallas showed a commitment to road safety, saying he would push for the adoption of a directive to enforce traffic offences across borders. “I consider this as one of the urgent matters to be submitted as soon as possible,” he said, adding it would probably take “a couple of months” before a proposal is submitted for approval to the college of commissioners.

But he also showed limited interest in suggestions to harmonise speed limits across countries. “I don’t think we have enough political credit” to decide on speed limits from Estonia to Spain.

He also underlined that “improving infrastructure where accidents are biggest” would also go a long way to reduce road traffic deaths.

He said he supported a “common code” on passenger rights to prevent differing interpretations across all modes of transport, especially with regards to disabled persons’ rights. “Principles must be the same for all modes of transport so, yes, I am in favour.”

Kallas admitted ignorance on one issue – that of animal transport welfare. “I must recognise that about animal transport I don’t know too much,” the Estonian confessed.

Siim Kallas was commissioner for administration, audit and anti-fraud in the Barroso I Commission (2004-2009).

A former prime minister of Estonia (2002-2003), Kallas made a name for himself during his European term with a transparency initiative aimed at strengthening ethics rules for EU policymakers and the estimated 15,000 lobbyists, NGOs and other pressure groups seeking to influence them in Brussels.

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