Truck drivers deserve an honest discussion, away from protectionist stereotypes

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

Polish border guards control at the Polish-Slovakian border crossing in Chyzne, south Poland, 28 March 2020. [Grzegorz Momot/EPA/EFE]

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the truck transport industry that ensures the security of supplies and food on our tables deserves praise, and an honest and transparent discussion, away from protectionist stereotypes, writes Petar Vitanov.

MEP Petar Vitanov (S&D, Bulgaria) is a member of the Committee on Transport and Tourism and of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.

In recent months, our world has faced a crisis unlike anything seen before. Millions of Europeans have been forced out of their workplaces and into the relative safety of their homes. It has therefore been up to a much smaller force of ‘key workers’ to maintain society and keep food on our tables.

Beyond our fantastic health workers, one of the main groups responsible for our continued wellbeing is our road transport workers, many of them from eastern member states like mine. At a time of critical need, they have continued to cross closed borders and remain on the road to deliver food and medicine where it is needed.

As they have demonstrated solidarity with their fellow Europeans, so must we in the months and years ahead. That is why, I believe, we must make fundamental changes to the EU’s ‘Mobility Package I’ before it can become law.

The stated aim of the Mobility Package was to enhance the working conditions of truck drivers and to secure a smooth and non-discriminatory functioning of the Single Market. However, as this legislation has progressed, it has become increasingly evident that the opposite ambition is held by many western European politicians, who see it as an opportunity to remove competition from the East and drive a protectionist agenda.

The work so far has been driven by outdated and incorrect perceptions of the haulage industry, combined with negative and biased media coverage based on unverified and often incorrect data. This was most evident during a recent Euronews report. To counter this aggressive campaign, and in the absence of a much-needed impact assessment, hauliers have themselves commissioned leading consultancies to look at the reality of their economic, social and environmental impact and the potential outcomes of the package, if left unchanged.

On environmental concerns, for example, a report by KPMG states that the proposed requirement for trucks to return to their member state every 8 weeks, with or without loads, will lead to an 0.8% increase in total greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector in just Bulgaria every year.

This is despite the fact that due to €500m in annual investment, on average, Bulgaria’s nearly 26,000 trucks are 4 times newer than the European average (3 years as opposed to 11.7). With this in mind, we still don’t know what the increase in emissions could be for Europe as a whole. Ironically, this measure was included in the provisional agreement on the same day that the European Commission officially proposed the European Green Deal and I still do not see how one matches up with the other.

When looking purely at the economic aspects though, the figures are even starker. In my native Bulgaria, the €2.86 billion road transport industry accounts for 6% of GDP and is responsible for 42,500 jobs. Furthermore, this sector, which has a long history in many eastern member states, is primarily SME-driven, with over 75% of the 12,700 registered Bulgarian transport companies operating 5 trucks of fewer. 36% of those trucks could come off the road if the proposals go through, threatening 14,000 jobs in Bulgaria alone. With those drivers making an average of €1,751 a month (3 times the national average), this is hardly the protection of drivers being promised.

Even the European Transport Workers’ Federation, which is strongly in favour of the package, admits that on driving and rest times, the trilogue outcome is a backward step compared to current rules. So, where is the desired improvement of working conditions for truck drivers? This was the price of the agreement and obviously some representatives from the European Parliament and the Council Presidency were prepared to have an agreement at any cost.

So, where do we stand today? At least, the Commission is finally undertaking an impact assessment because the Parliament consistently refused. In the meantime, however, the legislative process on the package continues. Independent analysis from KPMG shows that its consequences will be significant. COVID-19 has demonstrated what a disruption of this industry could mean for the supply chain. This critical industry deserves an honest and transparent discussion away from protectionist stereotypes. Solidarity for all Europeans must be at all times, not just in the face of a crisis.

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