Monday, June 02, 2008

Cabotage to extinction

"Foreign trucks set to flood Britain's roads as Brussels passes new law," screamed The Mail on Sunday yesterday.

This is latest EU law on so-called "cabotage" – an odd word derived from the French. It means – in strict terms – the transport of goods or passengers between two (or more points) in the same country. So restrictive have cabotage provisions in road transport become, though, that they even prohibit trucks coming over here with full loads and then picking up return loads, so that they do not travel back empty. Equally, they prevent British trucks picking up return loads when they deliver goods to EU member states.

Although the practice has been permitted in EU member states since 1998, it is so heavily restricted that the trade accounts for less than one percent of truck journeys. Thus does the EU want to see further "liberalisation", the advantages of which are obvious. Overall, increased return loads would lead to a reduction of traffic on our roads, with all that that entailed.

This was exactly what the commission and the EU parliament in mind, the latter declaring when the transport committee approved the measure in January:

The purpose of the proposal is to avoid situations where trucks are forced to return home from their international transport operations with an empty load, thereby wasting time and fuel and producing unnecessary emissions.
However, while such a prospect might be tolerable for the advantages it gives us, the new law goes much further. Not only will foreign trucks be able to pick up return loads, they will acquire rights to pick up loads and deliver them to other points in the UK, competing for business alongside British operators. The plans are to make this practice completely unrestricted by 2014.

Says the MoS, as overseas hauliers use cheaper fuel and unregulated labour, particularly from Eastern Europe, British operators claim they will be unable to compete.

Few people disagree that this will lead to a massive influx of foreign trucks on our roads – and one in seven of the heaviest vehicles are already foreign. Thus, the Freight Transport Association claims that hundreds of British hauliers will be forced out of business. It adds that it will cost Britain up to £165million a year – £115million in lost fuel duty, £20million in vehicle excise duty and £30million in income tax.

Furthermore, the Department for Transport readily admits that foreign vehicles are statistically more likely to break key road safety rules, and has argued for limits on their activity in the UK. It told the MoS, "We are very strongly opposed to foreign hauliers being able to undertake unlimited work in the UK, unless we have the enforcement information and the powers needed to maintain road-safety standards."

Strongly opposed or not, this is going to happen – and there is nothing the UK can do to stop it. The measure has to be approved by the Council of Ministers next month but QMV applies, which means that the UK would be outvoted if it tried to resist.

Yet, in the fullness of time, you can bet that the Europhiliacs will be claiming this as one of the advantages of our membership of the EU – ignoring the fact that another British industry is on its way to extinction.


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