EU transportation policy: competition with infrastructure


A bigger internal market, greater trade in goods and more infrastructure mean greater economic power. The EU wants to hold its own against China from a position of strength.

Graphic: "New silk routes" from china to the EU, existing and planned rail lines, major shipping routes

European integration is inconceivable without mobility and freedom of movement. As early as 1957 in the Treaty of Rome, the six members of the then European Economic Community stressed the importance of a common transportation policy. The current legal basis for this is the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009.

For decades, the European Community was primarily concerned with dismantling trade barriers to let markets develop without disruptive restrictions and customs controls. The rules, especially for transporting freight, should be the same everywhere, reducing not only transportation, but also production costs. In economic and political terms, the “four freedoms” of the EU single market became a success from 1993 onwards. The free movement of goods, capital and payments caused the volume of transportation to soar, while the free movement of people and services meant a hitherto unknown freedom to travel and work in other EU countries. In 2002, the euro was introduced as cash, eliminating the need for tedious conversions and expensive exchanges from one currency to another in ever more countries.

Since then, however, the ecological impact of this transportation system has become apparent. In economic competition, environmental and climate protection must be taken into account and resources must be conserved. This new perspective is laid out in a white paper for European transportation policy until 2050 published by the European Commission in 2011. It contains a model of sustainable mobility with objectives and a catalog of measures: shifting traffic from road to rail, applying the polluter-pays principle and promoting electric mobility. Little has been implemented so far, but the pressure to act is high. In the EU, one third of all climate-relevant gases are emitted by transportation – more than in any other economic sector. In Germany and throughout the EU, transportation is the only sector where emissions have not fallen since 1990.

Energy consumption of transportation modes in the 28 current EU-countries, changes from 1990 to 2016

The European Commission’s objectives in terms of transportation policy require ratification by the European Parliament and all Member States in the responsible EU Council of Ministers. The European Commission’s transportation policy is drawn up in the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE); Directorates-General correspond roughly to the national ministries. DG MOVE develops the Commission’s strategies and monitors their implementation. The Directorates-General for the Environment (DG ENV) and Climate Action (DG CLIMA) are responsible for specifying lower emissions targets. Their remit includes CO2 regulations for new cars and trucks, emissions standards and noise limits for vehicles. The EU also regulates minimum rates of fuel taxation and lays down criteria for road pricing. Both are important control elements for sustainable transportation.

With its Connecting Europe program, the EU wants to better integrate transportation, energy and digital infrastructures in order to accelerate the decarbonization and digitization of the European economy. Around 30 billion euros have been earmarked for this purpose in the 2014-2020 budget, and the European Commission has proposed an increase to 42 billion euros for 2021-2027. The allocation of funds is concentrated on a core network of nine major axes on which the EU is promoting growth and employment.

Graphic: selected indicators of the EU transportation system

Some experts criticize the focus on large projects, which prevents small gaps in the network from being closed. Next to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI or New Silk Road), the dimensions for a trans-European transportation and traffic network are comparatively modest. The BRI is the largest infrastructure project of all time, consisting of trade routes on land and at sea that link the “Middle Kingdom” with Europe and Africa. An energy and data infrastructure (Digital Silk Road) is being set up in addition to the land and water routes.The EU and Member States have mixed views on the BRI and Chinese investment. On the one hand, they could result in economic opportunities, for example at central logistics hubs such as the port of Duisburg, the final stop of a rail link from China. On the other hand, the People’s Republic is accused of nationalist industrial policy, a lack of willingness to cooperate and market-distorting subsidies.

The fact that China is realizing far-reaching geostrategic interests with the BRI and wants to expand its political influence in Europe makes networking within Europe and joint infrastructure projects are all the more important. With the New Silk Road, a new world defined by East Asia is emerging before our eyes. Mobility technologies mark a new epoch – like the sailing ships of the discoverers and conquerors from Europe back in the day.

One of the special characteristics of the EU is that each Member State can show and be shown better solutions to a given problem.

Dozens of heavily loaded freight trains roll from China to Europe every week. On the way back, they are often half-empty.

Structural change and pent-up demand in the former Eastern Bloc have tilted the EU’s energy needs toward road and air transportation.