EU Mobility Package risks becoming a roadblock to post-crisis recovery

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Cars and trucks on the A1 autobahn highway near Sottrum, northern Germany, 10 April 2020. [Focke Strangmann/EPA/EFE]

In its current form, the Mobility Package brings no benefits for European citizens other than a new wave of migration, an exacerbation of inequalities, and an undesirable increase in CO2 emissions, writes Clotilde Armand.

Clotilde Armand is a Romanian MEP who sits with the centrist Renew Europe group and is a member of the Parliament’s transport committee.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, 37% of truck driver jobs in the EU freight sector were vacant. This means that one-third of transportation orders could not be executed on time. An estimated 40% of German truck drivers will retire by 2027, leaving some 185,000 empty positions.

Belgium posts a 50% driver shortage, while in Romania a whopping 70% of available positions are unfilled. Knowing that two-thirds of truck drivers in Europe plan to retire within the next decade, we get an image of a completely non-resilient cargo transportation system.

At an International Road Transport Union meeting in Brussels, European transporters requested creative solutions in order to fill the labour gap. For example, a large Swedish firm asked to reduce the minimum age requirement for truck drivers from 18 to 16 years old!

Working conditions had to be improved

To ease the shortage of truck drivers, we must first ensure that EU drivers and their companies can work unhindered wherever their services are needed. This was, after all, the idea behind the common EU market.

Secondly, we should aim to render the truck driver profession more secure, better remunerated, and less bureaucratic. This was the stated goal of a new set of European laws currently in its final negotiation stage, the so-called Mobility Package.

Such laws were even more needed as the European trucking market has been welcoming drivers from Eastern countries, often working in difficult conditions: eating home-prepared food in highway rest areas, improperly parking their trucks, or allegedly sleeping in their cabin without showering for weeks.

In 2004, as our family was relocating from France to Romania, the truck driver of the moving company kindly asked our permission to take a shower in our house. We found it a little strange then, but now I understand that his employer simply did not want to pay for a hotel room with proper amenities.

Such practices are not acceptable. It became clear, as French President Emmanuel Macron was championing in 2017, that Europe had to regulate the transportation business.

Protecting Eastern drivers or Western businesses?

As European legislators started working on this “Mobility Package”, some worrying dispositions were unveiled. First, local transportation services (also called cabotage) may no longer be performed freely by non-local companies.

Secondly, the trucks, the main instrument of the industry, must go back every eight weeks to their company’s headquarters – a purely bureaucratic provision difficult to fulfil for companies based in the EU peripheral or island states.

Finally, drivers must go back at least every four weeks to their registered workplace. Such dispositions are evidently protectionist measures designed not to improve drivers’ lives, but to serve Western business interests.

If we were to mirror these dispositions with another industry, it would mean that cranes and trucks of German, Austrian or Italian companies working on Eastern building projects should also return home periodically!

With or without Eastern competition, the structural shortage of drivers would have inevitably brought the downfall of Western transport businesses.

The Mobility Package cannot reverse this decline. Instead, it perturbs the functioning of the single market with protectionist measures, not allowing the “invisible hand of the market” to operate its magic.

Hundreds of thousands of Eastern truck drivers relocating to the West

Although the Commission, acting as a safeguard against protectionism within the Union, rightly opposed part of the package, it was nevertheless eventually voted in the European Council by a majority of Western and Central member states, to the outrage of their Eastern and peripheral partners.

One of the strong arguments of the Commission was the lack of an economic impact assessment. But the outcome is easy to guess: the Mobility Package will have a huge impact on Eastern truck businesses, essentially driving them to bankruptcy, while Western businesses will be able to recruit the newly unemployed drivers.

These drivers will be encouraged to relocate westwards, together with their families. Romania alone has more than 300,000 licensed truck drivers. With the Mobility Package, the same drivers will continue to provide the same transportation services, but their employer will be Western, not Eastern, paying taxes and registering profits in the West.

According to a study conducted by the business consultancy KPMG, the Package could result in a 1-2 % decrease in the GDP of some Eastern member states.

Effect on the post-crisis recovery strategy

It has been calculated that the provisions of the Package, and in particular the compulsory homecoming of the vehicle, will lead to at least 25% of trucks circulating empty on European highways, going against the goals of the much applauded Green Deal.

Even the obvious negative impact on CO2 emissions did not convince Western negotiators to soften their stance. Now, with the looming corona crisis, the application of the Mobility Package will severely undermine our recovery strategy.

It will bring tens of thousands of small and medium-sized companies to bankruptcy. It will increase the cost of transportation by hindering the freedom of our internal market, a major blow to the very idea of the single market, potentially undermining the core of the European project.

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