EU ministers clinch deal on road ‘cabotage’

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European transport ministers have succeeded in overcoming their differences over opening up the EU road haulage market to increased competition among member states, despite fears the plans could lead to social dumping.

Following a lengthy debate on 13 June, ministers endorsed a compromise proposal from the Slovenian Presidency that would allow truck drivers established in one EU country to carry goods within another member state (so-called ‘cabotage’). 

Currently, a series of national restrictions prevent hauliers from picking up and delivering goods within their country of destination on international transport operations. The aim is to reserve local road haulage operations for national enterprises but such practices also have the undesired effect of forcing trucks to run with an empty load, thereby wasting time and fuel and producing unnecessary emissions. 

According to the compromise achieved in the Council, hauliers would be authorised to undertake a maximum of three cabotage trips within their country of destination – within seven days of their international delivery – as of 2010. 

To win over some of the EU’s big trucking nations, including Belgium, the Netherlands and most of the eastern member states, a clause authorising truck drivers to carry cargo back with them on their return trip or deliver to transit countries on their way home was also introduced. 

Such “return cabotage” would nevertheless be “limited to one operation per transited member state within the three days following the unladen entry into the territory of that member state” and could not be carried out in addition to the above-mentioned cabotage trips. 

The decision brings member states closer to Parliament’s stance, which also favours the use of return cabotage as a means of rendering road haulage more efficient. 

But Portugal insisted it did not go far enough, arguing that, in the context of soaring fuel prices, the EU would be “shooting itself in the foot” by adopting legislation that effectively “obliges operators to make trips with an empty vehicle”. 

However, countries like France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Malta are concerned that allowing too much freedom could lead to an uncontrolled increase in cabotage, with operators repeating operations in the same country every seven days. 

Another fear is that competition will mainly stem from companies based in low-wage countries, leading to distortions due to large variations in national social and fiscal conditions. 

To allay these fears, a clause stressing the temporary and non-systematic nature of cabotage was also introduced. It states that cabotage operations “should not be prohibited as long as they are not carried out in a way that creates a permanent or continuous activity within a host member state”. 

Austria nevertheless voted against the proposal, arguing it did not offer sufficient guarantees. Italy abstained for the same reason. Portugal and the Czech Republic also abstained, but for opposite reasons. 

The text will now go to a second reading vote in an attempt to reach a compromise between governments and the European Parliament – a feat that could still prove difficult. 

Indeed, in a vote last month, MEPs called for all restrictions on the number and duration of cabotage operations to be gradually lifted. “Two years after this regulation enters into force, the number of cabotage operations mentioned above shall be increased to seven. On 1 January 2014, all restrictions on the number and duration of cabotage operations shall be lifted,” states their report on the draft legislation. 

The text adopted by member states, however, calls on the Commission to report, by the end of 2013, on whether the harmonisation of national rules in the fields of enforcement, social and safety legislation is sufficient to allow any further opening of domestic road transport markets. 

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