EU states agree to cabotage, backtrack on sea safety

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EU transport ministers have rejected Commission proposals to tighten the bloc’s protection against maritime pollution. But they came closer to a deal on the controversial opening up of haulage and coach services to increased competition. 

A key goal of the road transport package is to make it easier for truck drivers established in one EU country to carry goods within another member state (so-called ‘cabotage’) by lifting a series of national restrictions. 

The idea is to avoid situations where trucks are forced to return home from their international transport operations with an empty load, thereby wasting time and fuel and producing unnecessary emissions.

In a tentative compromise, member states agreed that hauliers should be authorised to undertake three additional trips to pick up and deliver local goods within their country of destination. But truck drivers would still not have the right to carry cargo back with them on their return trip or to deliver to transit countries. 

Big trucking nations such as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic had wanted the proposals to go further, saying the current plan will keep too many empty trucks on the road. This, they insist, contradicts the EU’s goals of fighting air pollution and climate change and clearing up its congested roads. 

But other countries fear that lifting restrictive practices will lead to a large increase in competition from low-wage countries, with possible distortions due to large variations in national social and fiscal conditions. 

In a first vote in Parliament’s transport committee in January, MEPs had sided with the first group, calling for unlimited transit cabotage on return trips. However, the Socialists said they would try to win backing for a “safeguard clause” whereby member states could temporarily restrict cabotage on their territory in cases of “serious and objective difficulties” when the full plenary votes on the text in April. 

Another key debate during the 7 April Transport Council related to Commission proposals to strengthen maritime safety and avoid a repeat of the catastrophic oil spills that have taken place in the past decade (EURACTIV 07/04/08). 

To the EU executive’s disappointment, neither its proposals on ‘flag state obligations’ nor the civil liability of shipowners received sufficient backing from member states. The latter are keen to retain a larger degree of discretion on these issues and insist the International Maritime Organisation is the right place for them to be dealt with. “I think I can say that all member states support the objectives of both directives […] The key issue is therefore how to strike a balance between regional and international measures,” said Slovenian Transport Minister Radovan Žerjav. 

But EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot condoned the debate, saying: “The Council does not yet seem to have realised the size of what’s at stake or the necessary urgency to act.” He added that the Commission would continue to work with the Parliament to find rules that “ensure the quality of all member states’ vessels and guarantee the non-discriminatory compensation of maritime accident victims.” 

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