Friday, March 25, 2005

Hidden Europe

Today's Daily Telegraph sports a headline: "MPs want drivers to pay to use peak-time roads" which, at first sight, has little to do with the EU.

The subject is the publication yesterday of the transport select committee report on road charging, entitled "Road pricing – the next steps" and the newspaper’s report focuses on the finding that "motorists should pay for using busy roads at peak times".

The same story was also picked up by the BBC, which on its website ran a similar report, saying that: "Gridlocked roads or paying by the mile is the stark choice facing British motorists, says a group of MPs."

The BBC website also retails ministers' views that a national scheme is not feasible before 2014, something which the Telegraph also mentions, saying that "there was no technology for a nationwide scheme" but that MPs say "it should be available in the next 10 years."

What is missing from both reports, however, is any indication of what technology will be used, and why it will take until the remarkably precise date of 2014 for it to become available.

The select committee itself, however, is not so reticent. It points out two things. Firstly, any national scheme will have to rely on satellite positioning technology and, secondly, any UK system must conform with Directive 2004/52/EC of 29 April 2004 on the interoperability of electronic road toll systems within the Community.

This directive aims to "create a European electronic road toll service in order to secure the interoperability of toll systems in the internal market and to contribute to the elaboration of infrastructure charging policies at European level", and it almost goes without saying that the core of the system will be the EU’s Galileo satellite positioning system – which will not be operational before 2014.

Thus, under our very noses, our own Department of Transport and the EU are conspiring to develop an EU-wide road charging system, based on the EU's Galileo satellite system, about which the media seems to be totally silent.

The particular attraction of this for the EU, of course, is that it helps fund the Galileo system. But it will also create a centralised "charging infrastructure! over which the EU will have total control. In the fullness of time, this could provide the mechanism for the EU to charge its own direct tax, levied through the road charging system.

Strangely, this prospect is not explored by the transport committee, which also examined the Galileo satellite system – in November.

Then, however, the committee reported that Parliament and the public were not sufficiently aware of Galileo’s costs and benefits which, it said, "in some cases appear to have been poorly articulated, and insufficiently assessed." Even then, though, road charging was central to the economics of the system. The committee failed to mention it.

There seems to be something of a lack of joined-up thinking here. But there is also, a particularly egregious example of “hidden Europe”. As always, the political and practical implications are profound. Methinks we should be told what they are.

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