Parliament to revive EU talks on ‘green’ road tolls

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A vote on the revision of the Eurovignette directive in the European Parliament’s transport committee tomorrow (11 February) is expected to relaunch negotiations between the bloc’s 27 member states over the controversial issue of environmental charging for trucks. But serious progress is not expected before the autumn, when the next Parliament takes office. 

The Parliament’s transport committee is set to vote on over 500 amendments tabled to the draft report on the revision of the current Eurovignette Directive on 11 February.

The revision was proposed by the Commission in early July 2008 (EURACTIV 07/07/08). It would allow national governments to charge heavy goods vehicles for the noise, pollution and congestion they cause. 

However, the policy of ‘internalising the external costs of transport’ would only be voluntary, something unheard of until now. EU directives are normally mandatory and need to be implemented into national legislation within a determined period.

“I think we have managed to find an agreement,” rapporteur Saïd El Khadraoui told EURACTIV. But he also sounded a cautious note, admitting: “You never know in politics.” 

Specifically, El Khadraoui expects his compromise on the inclusion of congestion in a possible list of chargeable external costs to find majority support. His proposal recognises that trucks alone are not responsible for congestion, and so governments should only be able to charge them for it as part of action plans that include charging of all other vehicles as well.

Moreover, El Khadraoui insisted that member states should only be granted “limited” opportunity to charge for externalities. For example, “one shouldn’t be able to charge for accidents and loss of biodiversity under this directive,” he said.

The rapporteur also suggests that CO2 be considered as a chargeable external cost where it is not yet covered by fuel taxation. But he does not expect to get backing for this idea tomorrow.

Revenue collected from earmarking remains another major issue. According to El Khadraoui, revenue should be reinvested in the transport mode from which it has been collected, “so that the directive will not become just another taxation instrument” and can actually improve a specific transport mode. He acknowledged that earmarking is a difficult issue for member states, which are broadly opposed to it. But he stressed that it is the Parliament’s “sine qua non” condition on which the House will show no flexibility. This view is shared by all political groups, he added.

The rapporteur hopes that the Parliament’s vote and report on Wednesday will make “a clear statement” on the issue and boost discussions in the Council, which he described as a “bit blocked” on the issue. 

While no progress has been made on the directive since the French EU Presidency’s failed attempt to reach an agreement late last year (EURACTIV 10/12/08), the Czech EU Presidency wants to get a political agreement by June. 

So far, Council working groups have not started discussing the big political questions, such as counting congestion as an the external cost, or the legal basis for the revision of the directive. Some member states argue, for example, that the directive should be be based on taxation elements of the EU treaties, rather than transport. 

Another major bone of contention regards ensuring that the directive will not hamper the competitiveness of peripheral regions and their access to the internal market, amid fears that central freight transit countries such as France would simply profit from the new optional charging possibilities.

The report is set to be voted upon in the Parliament plenary early next month or in April. According to a Council spokesperson, MEPs will provide “important input” to Council discussions. Meanwhile, other Council sources have repeatedly told EURACTIV of the difficulty of making tangible progress on the dossier any time soon. 

Unless the Council can quickly overcome significant discrepancies, it appears unlikely that a first-reading compromise on the dossier can be achieved. Thus the debate may well drag on to the next Parliament term, requiring the appointment of new Parliament rapporteurs late this year or in 2010.

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