European transport policy must recognise ‘territorial disparities’

The ‘historical burden’ of underdeveloped infrastructure must be eradicated to further both the single market and the cause of European integration, argues Oldřich Vlasák.

By Oldrich Vlasák MEP

02 Apr 2014

In last year’s November plenary session, the European parliament gave final approval to the most radical overhaul of EU infrastructure policy since its inception in the 1980s. The parliament supported the revised trans-European transport network (TEN-T) maps which will act as a backbone for transportation in Europe’s single market for the coming decades.

The outcome was immediately praised by European commission vice-president for transport Siim Kallas, and one must admit that after tough multilateral negotiations, a reasonable compromise acceptable for all EU institutions as well as individual member states has been reached.

However, will the initial enthusiasm stay when the new cohesion policy framework 2014-2020 is launched? Will the envisaged plans really be achieved? And what will it bring to EU regions?

In my opinion, in the case of the revised TEN-T maps, we have managed to reach a balanced compromise. I say balanced because, in my eyes, this term best expresses the outcome of long negotiations. In competition with 28 member states, and reflecting limited financial resources, not every infrastructure project could be taken on board. There is not a member state whose initial intentions would be 100 per cent satisfied. On the other hand, there is not one that is completely neglected either.

By way of illustration, let me comment on achievements with regard to my home country, the Czech Republic. Thanks to the active contribution of Czech representatives, both at the European as well as national level, a number of long-awaited essential projects have been included in the maps. Coming from the city of Hradec Králové in east Bohemia, I consider the completion of the D11 highway linking my region with Poland, as well as the road connection between Prague and Ostrava going through Hradec Králové to be the biggest victory.

"Improvement of transport infrastructure strengthens economic, political, as well as cultural cooperation among regions"

At this point, I do not exaggerate when I say ‘victory’, as sufficient transport infrastructure constitutes a prerequisite for further development of any region. Speaking from the experience of former mayor of Hradec Králové and president of the union of towns and municipalities of the Czech Republic, improvement of transport infrastructure strengthens economic, political, as well as cultural cooperation among regions. For this purpose, at least basic infrastructure must exist.

However, this is still not the case of many central and eastern European countries which, thanks to decades of communist governance, struggle with underdeveloped infrastructure. When you visit regions in the east you can clearly see the historical burden of underdeveloped infrastructure.

As mentioned in the white paper, despite EU enlargement, large divergences in terms of transport infrastructure remain between eastern and western parts of the EU, which need to be tackled. The European continent needs to be united also in terms of infrastructure. In my eyes, removing this historical burden needs to be seen as a major contribution to the single market, as well as to European integration itself.

Unfortunately, I am not completely confident that this primary goal will be achieved when looking at the density of planned infrastructure networks in western and central-eastern member states. Specific conditions of the latter have simply not been taken sufficiently into account, both in terms of network density, as well as the commission’s predominant focus on rail infrastructure. In the Czech Republic, I do not see an instant need to improve relatively dense railway networks when essential road connections are missing.

The commission bases its position on the intention to make rail a qualitative alternative to road transport, which in the Czech Republic can be hardly achieved, as there is no completed road network. In other words, for the moment we need the ‘R35/R55’ connection between Prague and Ostrava, as well as other projects connecting regional economic centres. We need projects necessary for further economic and employment growth, before concentrating on other criteria and alternative means of transport.

To sum up, in order to strengthen the links between east and west or promote regional development and cooperation, the member states need to enjoy sufficient flexibility. At the point when eligible projects are being discussed with the European commission, it is vital that member states are able to take the territorial disparities that exist in the EU into account.

At the EU level, the TEN-T map consisting of projects promising ‘European added value’ has been created, so let the member states decide which of these projects to undertake and in which order they will realise them.