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  • Plus ça change – transport spending ready for its close-up?

    While all eyes in Brussels are usually focused on three leading actors – the Commission, Parliament and Council – there are several other lesser-known EU institutions playing supporting roles. In the wings we have the EU Court of Auditors, which has repeatedly published scathing – and revealing – reviews on the use of EU funds for transport infrastructure. But will the stars of the EU show listen to their critics before the spotlight is turned on the new transport spending policies?

    At the end of May, the EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas welcomed a ‘historic agreement’ on a new trans-European transport network (TEN-T) and the new fund to support it, the Connecting Europe Facility. In his welcoming speech, he said: ‘This agreement will connect East with West and replace today’s transport patchwork with a network that is genuinely European.’ But to some of us, this sounds like a dusty re-run.

    In 1984, the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) published a document called Missing Links, which highlighted all the roads (and a few railway lines and inland waterways) that Europe’s big businesses wanted to see built. The bias in favour of roads was clear – the ERT was founded by 17 leading businesses, among them Volvo, Fiat, Renault and Shell. Within a decade, Missing Links found expression in the original transport-European networks proposal. This proposal, finally adopted in 1996, listed a number of transport infrastructure schemes intended to create a continental network. The Commission president at the time, Jacques Delors, warned that money would not be available to build all of them, yet the more the 12 member state governments discussed the TEN-T proposals, the more schemes were added to the list.

    The script was supposed to be rewritten this time. The Court of Auditors, in their 2010 assessment of EU transport spending, concluded there were ‘weaknesses in the selection and approval procedures at the Commission’, that priorities were poorly defined, projects were not properly prepared and cost overruns (of up to 90%) were common. They recommended urgent measures to correct this to get better value for money and lower the risk of cost overruns and failed projects.

    Fast forward to 2013 and the ‘historic agreement’ reached in May on how €23bn will be spent between 28 countries in 2014-20. This time, the agreement features an even longer wish-list – running to 33 annexes – of transport schemes that member states and MEPs have asked to be included. This growing list contains all the transport schemes that national governments would like to build, but can’t afford to fund without EU help.

    It may be laughable that nearly 20 years of this flagship policy has only produced a handful of completed projects, but we cannot overlook the environmental, financial and social damage that EU funds have caused. One look to the empty highways, high-speed rail lines and white elephant airports around southern Europe shows this is a very real tragedy.  Revealingly, the Court of Auditors recently found that the same length of motorway costs almost twice as much to build in Spain as in Germany. The court shied away from speculating as to why, merely noting that this cannot be explained by labour costs.

    The newly-updated transport spending policies go some way to including a key recommendation of the court: ‘It is important that cost/benefit analysis, along with environmental and socio-economic analysis, allows for the merits of proposed projects to be compared during the selection procedure.’ But how will these new safeguards fare against the mighty wish-list?

    That will entirely depend on whether the Commission and TEN-T Agency hold their nerve when it comes to dishing out the funds. Only if they follow the new script for TEN-T and Cohesion spending, to give preference to genuinely sustainable projects that will cut emissions this time around, will this be the ‘historic’ agreement as billed. That will mean standing up to the heckling from national governments, all keen to see their pet projects become concrete reality.  Otherwise, it’s just a big budget re-make of the same old farce.