Talks between France and the United Kingdom over the management of the Channel Tunnel risk failing as the British side considers the EU’s plans for the rail link “absolutely unacceptable”, a UK government minister said on Wednesday (16 December).
Under-secretary for transport Rachel Maclean told the UK parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee that the government intends to operate its part of the Channel Tunnel as “a sovereign and independent nation” and continues to reject a role for the European Court of Justice.
The Luxembourg-based court has been the ultimate adjudicator for any disputes over the application of rail safety laws and although it is rarely asked to intervene, Westminster still considers its potential involvement to be “a redline for the UK”.
There appears to be little common-ground if the UK does not relent on the ECJ issue. However, political analysts have suggested that an existing body or a completely new international arbitration panel could be established to rule over disputes.
Negotiations with France are ongoing over a new set of rules governing safety but failure to broker an agreement will eventually jeopardise the smooth running of trains through the undersea tunnel.
Maclean insisted that the UK government is “as prepared as we possibly can be” but would not give the committee a “cast-iron guarantee” that Eurostar and Eurotunnel services will not be disrupted in the post-transition period.
The other EU member states agreed in November to grant France powers to negotiate a new deal and although Maclean reported that the talks are “constructive”, a lot of details still need to be ironed out.
Contingency plans published by the European Commission on 10 December and approved by EU governments this week confirm that authorisations issued by the current governance regime will be extended after January for two months.
Safety certificates already in place will be rolled over for nine months, suggesting that disruption is indeed unlikely in the first half of 2021, as it grants France and the UK extra time to find a compromise.
The under-secretary added that she would keep the scrutiny committee and parliament updated about any progress in the talks but did not provide any extra details about milestones or next steps.
Eurostar, the only firm authorised to operate passenger trains through the tunnel, is struggling due to the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the effects of the pandemic, which has forced the company to scale back services dramatically.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]