In the driver’s seat: Belgium hopes to steer the Union towards green and pleasant transit

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Series Details Vol.7, No.20, 17.5.01, p20
Publication Date 17/05/2001
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Date: 17/05/01

Deputy Prime Minister Isabelle Durant tells Laurence Frost what Belgium's transport priorities will be during its presidency of the EU

Q: What will the main focus of your presidency from a transport perspective be?

A: We have three main themes - environment, safety and social. It also depends on the Swedish presidency - the content of our agenda is partly a function of the last Transport Council in June. I hope we manage to finish some things off by then, but there are one or two difficult problems we may not be able to solve by then, for example weekend bans on heavy-goods vehicles.

Q: Are you inheriting more unfinished business from the Swedes than you bargained for - Galileo, for example?

A: It's too early to assess the achievements of the Swedish presidency. It was too difficult to get a final agreement to launch the Galileo [satellite navigation] project at the last Council, so it was clear it would have to be decided in December under our presidency.

Q: How important is it to have all of the promised €200 million in private funding in place before that decision can be made?

A: It's a chicken-and-egg situation. You can't expect clear commitments from the private sector unless you give a firm sign that a number of countries are ready for the programme to start. If we have a solid base of investment pledges and the commitment of several member states it will have a snowball effect.

On the other hand, if we wait months and months to have precise financial projections, I think the private sector will see there isn't enough political will and begin to lose interest. In any case, according to my information there will be enough money on the table to launch the project.

Q: Is it important to increase charges to road users to encourage the transfer of goods and passengers to other forms of transport? Is this something you expect to see in the transport White Paper?

A: As a transport minister I'm in a similar position to Loyola de Palacio: we can say it's important to transfer from road to rail, but the instruments are not in our hands. They're in the hands of Ecofin [finance ministers]. Fiscal rebalancing between different sectors will be on the agenda for the informal environment and transport council in September.

But we're sure that without fiscal measures it will be difficult to have concrete effects. I hope the White Paper will provide a good basis for discussion and include different Options, among them fiscal ones.

Q: How is your social agenda going to affect plans for further transport liberalisation?

A: There's already been enormous liberalisation in transport, but without enough attention to social conditions. The next steps in railway liberalisation will be taken in 2003 and 2007, but it's important to begin work now on the social dimension. We've seen that there are still problems in the road sector with drivers' working times. Applying these conditions to eastern European countries will be even more difficult.

Working conditions, accessibility, and universal service - for me these are preconditions to complete liberalisation. I defended this point of view during the conciliation of the second railway package and it was hard work.

Belgium was ready to issue a unilateral declaration but eventually we managed to agree on the text, and that's a first step. We want liberalisation but at the same time we want more people and more freight on the railways; we need a single method to meet both objectives.

Q: Where does Belgium most need new EU transport legislation?

A: There's an open debate at the moment on weekend bans. We're very divided.

At the moment there are no rules, but one of the three regions is demanding a complete ban. I'm hoping for a broader solution.

The Commission's current proposal is the best one possible under the circumstances, to

stop the rules in different countries from becoming more fragmented.

Q: Are you optimistic that the EU can get a satisfactory deal on aircraft noise at the International Civil Aviation Organisation?

A: My main task at September's general meeting in Montreal will be to get the EU countries to speak with one voice. Efforts have been made before to do this - by de Palacio among others - but it's never been easy. France and Britain have always put their own interests first. What we have to do at all costs is get an agreement on timing for the phasing out [of noisier aircraft].

Q: Are you ready to accept a solution to the dispute with the US on hushkits [engine mufflers] that treats airports on a case-by-case basis, as proposed by Washington?

A: That's what is on the table but it's not simple, because it would effectively mean noise dumping at the airports that were still open to the older, noisier planes. For me that's a difficult approach - I can't exclude a deal like that but I'd prefer to push for a global solution.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

A: Yes, there is just one thing, my 'fetish dossier' if you like: blind-spot mirrors. I'm going to launch an initiative to make it compulsory at European level to equip all lorries with blind-spot mirrors.

In Belgium we have quite a high number of people killed or seriously injured every year who could have been saved by this quite simple measure, which is also relatively cheap.

Q: So by the same logic, are there any plans to abolish priorité à droite?

A: That's not on our agenda, no. To be honest, I think it would probably be easier to get an agreement on rear-view mirrors.

Article forms part of a survey on European transport issues. Deputy Prime Minister Isabelle Durant tells Laurence Frost what Belgium's tranpsort priorities will be during its presidency of the EU.

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