60 kilometres of traffic jams on the border between Poland and Germany. 20 hours waiting time due to vehicle inspections. Because of border controls, international freight traffic between Western and Eastern Europe was close to collapsing; including countless trucks that delivered goods for Member States’ supermarkets. All of this happened in mid-March 2020 – when supermarkets were struggling to replenish their inventory amid response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. Similar situations also took place at borders across the EU when national governments were shaken up by the unknowns of the Coronavirus, frantically seeking measures to protect local populations.
Fortunately, the European Commission soon realised that border measures targeted at foreign trucks and haulage companies do more harm than good. On 23 March 2020, the Commission published a “Communication on EU Guidelines for national border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services”.
The Commission stressed, “the principle that all EU internal borders should stay open to freight and that the supply chains for essential products must be guaranteed.” The Commission also called on Member State governments to “preserve the EU-wide operation of supply chains and ensure the functioning of the Single Market for goods.”
More precisely, European Commission officials urged Member States to “act immediately to temporarily suspend all types of road access restrictions in place in their territory (week-end bans, night bans, sectoral bans, etc.) for road freight transport and for the necessary free movement of transport workers. Transport workers, irrespective of their nationality and place of residence, should be allowed to cross internal borders.”
“Fleet transport” reported that most EU governments indeed continued to allow foreign trucks to cross their borders and that many EU governments also relaxed existing rules on driving and rest times.
Likewise, Germany’s Transport Ministry responded to the Commission’s call to suspend cabotage regulations. On March 20, the Ministry wholeheartedly announced that the German government has decided to allow free cabotage until the end of September. Germany’s authorities were required “not to punish violations of the transport law against the authorisation requirement and cabotage regulations until September 30, 2020.” It was further decreed that Germany’s Federal Office for Freight Transport and the police “abstain from enforcing cabotage laws because of the Corona crisis for transports of important goods such as fuel, medical products and food.”
The shelf life of the decree was just one week. On March 27, Germany’s Ministry of Transport cancelled the previously announced suspension of cabotage regulations. Germany’s Transport Minister, the Christian Democrat (CDU) Andreas Scheuer, called on Germany’s police and enforcement authorities to immediately reinstate the 3-in-7 cabotage rule – even during the Corona crisis.
According to Eurotransport, the Ministry of Transport faced strong lobbying pressure from associations of German haulage and logistics companies. The withdrawal of the cabotage exemptions was part of a larger freight transport package “coordinated” with German industry associations AMÖ, BGL, BIEK, BWVL and DSLV. The lobby groups argued that they will now “ensure the security of supply for the economy and society in these times of crisis”. At the same time, the Federal Association for Freight Transport Logistics and Disposal (BGL) strongly “condemned the reduction in freight prices that was initiated in many places”.
The developments in Germany demonstrate once again that the EU’s cabotage laws merely aim to protect vested commercial interests in Western European Member States from foreign competition. This situation also showcases that the debate about cabotage restrictions, a protectionist measure by design, needs to be separated from the debate about labour rights and working conditions of truck drivers in Europe.
Despite the principle of common non-discriminatory transport policy, the EU’s existing cabotage laws stifle competition and economic convergence in the EU. The recently proposed reforms of the Mobility Package 1, which have been confirmed by the European Parliament’s Transport Committee in January 2020 (under the auspices Germany’s Ismail Ertug), are scheduled to undergo a plenary vote some time before summer 2020.
The Mobility Package 1 marks just another attempt by some MEPs and some Member State governments to break-up Europe’s Single Market. Ismail Ertug MEP (S&D, Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) is still asking MEPs to approve even tighter restrictions for freight transport services in the EU, including transport vans. Pushed by Emanuel Macron and his administration, Ismail Ertug is pushing for a law that is designed to discriminate against EU workers who hold the wrong EU passport, mainly citizens from Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, estimates suggest that the additional CO2 emissions from empty trailers would amount to about 4 million tonnes annually – an amount equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 3 to 4 medium-sized hard-coal-fired power plants.
Given the current turmoil in the European supply chains, it is now time for MEPs to reconsider whether they are still interested in a commonly-shared Single Market and whether they want to send out a strong signal to EU critics – a strong signal in favour of fundamental EU values and a non-discriminatory Single Market.
MEPs should call for a full abolition of cabotage laws. Maintaining cabotage regulations would further drive apart Europe’s less economically developed regions from more developed Western European countries – both economically and mentally. As a result, it would become more rational for Central and Eastern European governments to reach out to non-EU countries in search for new economic opportunities. Deeper economic and political relationships with non-EU partners would become legitimate, eroding the process of European integration. It is now up to the European Parliament to abandon freight cabotage restrictions and save the Single Market.