Hundreds of truck drivers blocked roads across Bulgaria on Thursday (17 May) as European Union leaders met in Sofia, protesting against proposed EU rules they say would cost them their jobs and put their firms out of business.
Transport company owners described the initiative, known as the Mobility Package, as a protectionist measure designed to help rival firms in western Europe. The Bulgarian transport association said around 120,000 drivers from the country would lose their jobs under the proposed rule changes.
Hundreds of truck drivers blocked roads across Bulgaria on Thursday as European Union leaders met in Sofia, protesting proposed EU rules they say would cost their jobs and put their firms out of business. https://t.co/68UZz9kjXp pic.twitter.com/w8zTK9Fm4j
— PRO NEWS NET (@PNN_pronews) May 17, 2018
Trucks from Bulgaria and other low-wage eastern European countries are a common sight on the roads of western Europe, competing with local firms whose drivers are paid much more.
Under the package, backed by France, Germany and other higher-wage states, truck drivers from eastern Europe would receive the same payment for work abroad as those employed by western European transport companies.
The package has long been the subject of negotiations between EU member states and has yet to be laid before the European Parliament.
The Bulgarian government backed the local truck companies. “We declare our strong support for Bulgarian carriers,” Transport Minister Ivaylo Moskovski said.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who hosted the EU summit, said the proposed changes would “kill the Bulgarian sector”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped a compromise could be found in the coming months. “We will find a balanced deal together that will ensure the proper working of the single market, good social protection and fair competition in the transport sector. September has to be our objective,” he told a news conference at the Sofia summit.
Drivers from Bulgaria, where average monthly wages of little more than €500 are among the lowest in the EU, often spend weeks moving loads between countries including Germany, France and Britain, before returning to their home base.
Under the package, drivers would have to rest for at least 45 hours in a hotel rather than their cab and return home every three weeks.
Bulgarian transport firms said this would erase eastern European companies’ competitive advantage.
“These restrictions are absolutely unnecessary,” said Vladislav Kalchev, owner of a transport company. “They are trying to help, in some way, the market in the big countries.”
In what looked like a PR stunt, Andrey Novakov, an MEP from Boyko Borissov’s ruling party GERB, announced on Facebook he would ride a TIR truck to protest against the proposed law.
“I will ride with a TIR between Sofia and Brussels, and I will share the everyday life of the boys who make their living as drivers, and prove that the European Commission proposals in the Mobility package are unacceptable and harmful to our carriers”, Novakov wrote.
Sharing the everyday life of a Bulgarian truck driver from #Brussels to #Sofia conviced me that @EU_Commission proposals in the #MobilityEU package are unfair and absolutely unacceptable for #EU #carries. #EUTransport pic.twitter.com/aUn07ztXUo
— Andrey Novakov (@AndreyNovakov) May 17, 2018
What is the EPP position?
A controversy unfolded following a statement by the head of the European Parliament’s EPP Group, Manfred Weber, who said in Sofia on 16 May that with its 219 MEPs, the EPP group will support the GERB proposals for the mobility package.
After meeting the GERB MPs in the National Assembly, Weber said their position was “absolutely identical” to the position the EPP advocates in the European Parliament.
However, the EPP, just like other political groups, are divided on the mobility package as most MEPs have national positions to defend on this issue.
“We are the free market party, we want this market to have competitiveness. European mechanisms must not be used, measures must be put in place that in one way or another punish the Bulgarian carriers and give priority to the French”, said Weber.
“We want to have competition, protect companies and their jobs. What strongly surprises me is the position of the Socialists. At the European level, it is precisely the Social Democrats and the Socialists who are the most pleading for the introduction of higher social standards. It is not normal that Bulgarian socialists advocate for higher social standards in the European Parliament, and in Bulgaria, they oppose them”, Weber said.
That drew a furious reaction from S&D MEP Peter Kouroumbashev, who described Weber’s statement as an “absolute lie”.
“I would like to recommend to the EPP Group Chairman in the European Parliament to get acquainted with the position of MEPs from his own parliamentary group regarding the European Commission’s proposals. During the discussion [on Tuesday] of the legislative proposals in the EP Transport and Tourism Committee, Mr Vim van de Camp, a member of the European Parliament of the European People’s Party and a rapporteur on the regulation in question, unambiguously supported the position of France and Germany”, Kouroumbashev stated.