A positive lesson, a negative one, and one on European politics

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Courtesy of Transport and Environment (T&E)

We always felt the economic crisis, with its associated scarcity of public money, could bring about more than just misery. We thought it could be the trigger for positive reforms towards more sustainable transport. And there are now signs that things are slowly starting to move in this direction.

Less and wiser spending and more smart transport charging have always been high on T&E’s list of wishes. In the last couple of years, we have seen some examples of this, arguably not enough, and maybe even disappointingly few, but still. Since late 2009, EU average petrol and diesel taxes have been increased by some 3 cents, in contrast to decreases of around 12 cents in the decade before. Air ticket taxes have been introduced in Germany and Austria, and increased in the UK. Here and there, car tax systems have been tweaked.

But that Spain, of all countries, now seems serious about introducing lorry charging beats my expectations. For a decade and more, Spain has been one of the most determined enemies of proposals to make the Eurovignette directive more flexible. This was explained by its geographic position (seen as rather peripheral) and by social reasons: fear that its numerous self-employed drivers would be hard pressed to cough up the fees vis-à-vis bigger and more professional competitors.

The battle has not been won, obviously. Spain’s proposal to introduce a distance-based lorry charge seems to enjoy growing support from within the finance ministry, the construction sector and the three biggest political parties. The transport ministry and road haulage firms are less positive, to put it mildly. But at the very least there is now a serious debate where previously this was completely impossible.

What does this episode teach us? One positive lesson, a negative one, and one on European politics.

On the positive side, environmentalists (and economists, in this case!) need patience to get their ideas accepted, but their time will come in the end.

On the negative side, the one and only explanation for emerging Spanish support for a lorry charge is a desperate ‘dash for cash’. Now government coffers are empty, the all-powerful Spanish construction sector sees this previously demonised tool as its only chance. The environment does not even feature on the sidelines, or as a convenient political excuse. The fundamental argument still needs to be won that many more sensible things can be done with the revenues than just building new roads. You can lower labour taxes with them, for example, spurring job creation in the entire economy and not just in the road building business. Green tax reform remains far too difficult for far too many people.

On European politics: distance-based lorry charging is conquering Europe. All of Europe? No, some corners still offer stubborn resistance. On present trends, my country, the Netherlands, might be the last to introduce it, after 20 years of claiming it would become the first. Another stubborn resister is the UK, which has now proposed a time-based motorway vignette, as if all these modern things like GPS and ICT did not exist.

North-Western Europe (Benelux, UK, Scandinavia) has some catching up to do. It’s time it realised as much and caught up, so that Europe can finally move ahead with a continent-wide system that will benefit everyone.

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