The last European Parliament plenary debate of the year owed its existence to a question addressed to the European Commission about “barriers to the free movement of goods”, sent by Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee vice-chair Andrus Ansip (EE, Renew).
The former Commissioner’s opening gambit sounded neutral enough, when he stated that, while Member States can restrict the free movement of goods if they are “in the overriding public interest”, restrictions should be coordinated with the Commission and the other Member States and should follow the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination.
Ansip then continued to politely ask the Commission how they are planning to overcome current restrictions or find alternative solutions for them.
But the fact that, on behalf of the Commission, it was Adina-Ioana Vălean, in charge of transport, rather than her internal market colleague Thierry Breton, fielding the questions, pointed to a particular problem that Parliament wanted to address on Thursday afternoon.
The centre-right EPP Group’s IMCO coordinator Andreas Schwab (DE) filled in some gaps without yet naming names: “Pushing a problem from one country to another makes no sense”, he argued, adding that “a seventy-kilometre-long queue at a border is dangerous, bad for the economy and bad for the environment”.
Such an impediment for movement of goods between Germany and Italy was not acceptable, Schwab insisted.
“Pushing a problem from one country to another makes no sense. A seventy-kilometre-long queue at a border is dangerous, bad for the economy and bad for the environment” Andreas Schwab (DE, EPP)
His S&D Group IMCO committee colleague Brando Benifei then finally spelled it out: “Since 1 January 2021 the Austrian regional government of Tyrol has banned all night crossings of any HGV over the Brenner Pass”.
The Italian centre-left politician added that this had “cost hundreds of millions of euros so far”, at a moment when the effects of the pandemic are threatening the livelihoods of so many.
It seemed that some cross-party consensus from the countries affected by the Brenner Pass bottleneck had formed when Benifei’s fellow countryman Marco Campomenosi (ID) commented that, given timid stances by the IMCO committee and the Italian government, the Commission needed “to take action and consider infringement procedures against Austria”.
Austrian EPP member Barbara Thaler, representing Tyrolia, was there to make the case for the defence.
Road transport had capacity limits, she argued, in particular “with us in the Alpine region”.
“The measures taken are emergency measures, for the people, the environment and our infrastructure, because we have reached the limit.”
Thaler suggested that a solution could be sought by a common effort to boost the road to rail transition.
While putting more freight on railways is as uncontroversial a goal as improving the functioning of the Single Market, the Tyrolean argument on environmental grounds was mostly not accepted and seen as NIMBYsm.
“Austria’s claim that the restrictions have been put in place to improve air quality does not stack up, because they are forcing trucks on longer diversions with a higher carbon footprint” Mick Wallace (IE, The Left)
The Left Group’s Mick Wallace commented: “Austria’s claim that the restrictions have been put in place to improve air quality does not stack up, because they are forcing trucks on longer diversions with a higher carbon footprint”.
Kosma Złotowski (PL, ECR), author of an IMCO own-initiative report on “tackling non-tariff and non-tax barriers in the Single Market”, who wrote about it recently for the Parliament Magazine, stated that the Commission “should have acted against Austria” already.
The EPP Group’s shadow on that report, Maria da Graça Carvalho (PT), insisted that “Member States have to provide conditions for free movement. In a Single Market there is no space for artificial barriers.”
While clearly happier to talk about more general aspects of transport in the Single Market in times of Covid which MEPs had raised, Commissioner Vălean did also respond to the Brenner Pass issue:
“Moving a queue of trucks from one region to another is not the solution”, she confirmed, adding that “it’s no use to grind a battle axe along such an important corridor”.
As for a solution that would work, it had to be agreed by everybody, Vălean suggested, and she and her team were working on it:
“We are in a permanent dialogue with the countries involved and will relaunch dialogue on government level”.
The Commission had arrived at “good proposals” but what was need now was “the political will of the parties involved to agree on a common solution”.