The Macron effect… on our roads

May 17, 2017

When France goes to the polls, Europe holds its breath. France is essential to the European project and without it the EU in its current form cannot exist. And never were the stakes higher than in this election. Fortunately Macron won a resounding victory. France will not become the playground of the Russian-sponsored National Front. Europe will not fall apart.

It goes without saying that the vote has a major impact on our work. Had Marine Le Pen won, the EU would have gone through an existential crisis. Europe’s climate plans would undoubtedly have suffered enormously.

Fortunately that didn’t happen. But it remains extremely disconcerting that a candidate that proposes the all-out destruction of the European Union can get a third of the votes in one of the EU’s founding member states.

Macron was a candidate who promised change, not just back home but also in Europe. Macron – and many with him – wants a Europe that better protects its citizens. In few places is this more essential than the road freight transport sector.

The creation of the single market has opened the EU market for goods transport. This has led to increased competition and companies squeezing driver wages or simply moving to cheaper parts of Europe (sometimes through letterbox companies). The low cost of trucking is one of the big drivers for the fast growth of goods transport in the EU as well as a simultaneous jump in road freight emissions (which increased 36% between 1990 and 2010). While trucks make up less than 5% of all vehicles on the road, they are responsible for 25% of on-road fuel use and carbon emissions.

As it happens, the European Commission is preparing a series of proposals to update the social regulations that apply to road freight. The road package – announced for 31 May – will be among the first proposals President Macron receives from Brussels. It is a unique opportunity (especially with Britain on the way out) for the Commission to show that it takes French – and other European – voters’ concerns seriously. Better social protection in road freight would also be good for the environment. The artificially low cost of trucking undermines trucking efficiency. One in five trucks is driving empty and truck filling rates hover around 50%. Fairer wages for truck and van drivers would – through higher trucking costs – encourage a much more efficient haulage sector with less unnecessary trips, better filling rates and a chance for rail to compete on a more level playing field.

But the artificially low cost of trucking is not just about drivers’ wages. Trucks damage our roads and the pollution they emit makes us sick. Tolls and distance-based charges are essential to making trucks pay for these “externalities” (air pollution, climate change, noise, congestion). Fifteen EU countries now have distance-based tolls for HGVs. As part of its May road package, the Commission will propose to amend the EU’s tolling laws. The Commission should phase out ineffective “drive all you like” vignettes, and expand km-based tolls and differentiated tolls on the basis of truck CO2 emissions.

Perhaps the Commission’s road package will also stimulate President Macron to reconsider road charging in France. Part of the French motorway network is already tolled (through péage toll booths) but many of the roads that trucks use are not tolled. This is why the French parliament unanimously adopted the so-called écotax or French road charge. Unfortunately this is one of the many projects that François Hollande scrapped after protests. So the tolling infrastructure – which was built at great expense – is just sitting around idle. The good news is that all it takes is a brave, young president to activate it. One possible way forward could be to apply the EU’s opt-in tolling approach to France, and allow French regions – which Macron wants to reinforce – to levy truck tolls.

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