Success for SP in European Parliament: Public Transport can stay in public hands

10 May 2007

Success for SP in European Parliament: Public Transport can stay in public hands

The European Parliament today decided that public transport can remain in the hands of public local or regional authorities. This decision would not have been possible without the efforts of SP Euro-MP Eric Meijer, who as long ago as 2000 was appointed 'Rapporteur' on the Commission's proposal. Under the European Parliament's internal rules, for every proposal from the European Commission, which has the right to initiate all legislation, a 'Rapporteur' is appointed who has the job of researching the issue and convening meetings of representatives of all the groups to try to find positions which can win majority support. "I knew that the EU wanted to get rid of publicly owned passenger transport" Erik Meijer explained, "just as they want to see the back of public ownership in postal services and energy supply. From the start I have been determined to find a way to stop these plans from being realised. But that would only be successful if we could mobilise opposition throughout Europe. This is what we managed to do, and it paid off."

Erik MeijerSince the rise of private cars, public transport has been generally unprofitable and could only be continued on the basis of public subsidies. This is a problem in the EU, because financial support from the state is seen as distorting competition. In June 2000 the European Commission brought forward a proposal for an EU law which sought to prescribe how regions and contracts would be awarded to firms. All tram, bus, metro and train services in need of state subsidy must, under this proposal, be put out to tender. The company which claimed the least money would win this tender. Multinational corporations such as the British firm Arriva, or the French Veolia/Connex/BBA, which have already taken over a great deal of the transport services in the Netherlands, have the greatest interest in seeing such a measure pass.

The Commission promised lower fares, but these would be achieved primarily by driving down wages. Workers would not be guaranteed employment if a contract changed hands and a new firm arrived on the scene. When Erik Meijer first began his investigations as Rapporteur, he was told that the existing situation was in longstanding conflict with the rules laid down in the EU treaty, that the measure's consequences had already been exhaustively studied and that the reform must be instituted as quickly as possible.

Meijer did not agree, however, and in working together with major cities, national organisations of local authorities, trade unions and consumers' organisations and environmentalist groups he formed an entirely different picture of the situation. Small firms, including those in public ownership, would run the risk of bankruptcy if the tenders were allowed to proceed as envisaged. Small-scale, localised public monopolies would be replaced by large-scale monopolies in private hands, and in a short space of time this would result in both the passenger and the state having to pay more for less. Moves in a number of areas to introduce free public transport, as well as the creation of new urban tram networks, would be endangered.

Meijer's views won the support of the European Parliament, which in 2001 voted by a large majority in favour of his report. Public authorities would remain free to organise their passenger transport services in a non-commercial manner. However, this decision would only become law if it were also approved by transport ministers of the member states, after which the Parliament would also have to agree any changes the ministers might make. It took until the end of 2006, but at the end of last year the bulk of Meijer's proposals were carried by the EU Council of Transport Ministers.

Following this, however, some Members of the European Parliament, in which the right had become considerably stronger since 2000, attempted to reverse some of Meijer's original amendments, and the SP Member had to return to the negotiating table to try to reach an agreement between Parliament and Council. "On the one hand I took all the reasonable proposals from the Parliament on board and tried to defend them, which won me broad support from the different political groups," Meijer explained. "On the other I convinced the Council that they should throw out a number of amendments which would have meant more market and less freedom of choice for local and regional authorities. It's amazing how you can use this role to steer the final result in the desired direction." On 10th May the final agreement won the support of a majority of MEPs, with only the liberal group and some right-wing Christian Democrats dissenting.

For the Netherlands the decision means that the EU's rules no longer present an obstacle to public ownership of local and regional passenger transport services. Privatisation has been carried through under the so-called Law on Personal Transport 2000, which wrongly anticipated the adoption of something closely resembling the Commission's original proposal. Last month, however, it emerged that a majority of members of the national parliament elected last November want to scrap this regulation, prompting SP Member of Parliament and passenger transport spokesman Emile Roemer to announce that he would be bringing forward a proposal to that effect.

Roemer wants to put an end to the privatisation process in pubic transport which, he says, "has led to the scrapping of numerous routes, cuts in services and in maintenance, and to a great deal of unrest among employees. Publicly-owned transport companies have been sold against the express wishes of big city councils and the people who elect them. In a recent parliamentary debate the government answered such criticisms by claiming that EU law meant they had no choice. Now this kite simply won't fly any more, and it's time to scrap compulsory tendering."

The SP's proposal has already won support from the Green Left and two other small parties in the national parliament, as well as from Labour MEPs. "Before the elections PvdA (Labour) Members of the national Parliament were vociferous in their criticism of compulsory tendering," Roemer said. "With their support we could free urban and regional transport from the tyranny of the market."

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