Roving brief

Transport minister Jacques Barrot is using all his political skills in an attempt to impose harmony on Europe’s eclectic transport systems. Stuart Nathan reports.

The transport brief at the European Commission is a particularly thorny one. Trying to impose harmony on Europe’s wildly-differing transport systems, developed over a variety of landscapes and marine routes from origins in the Roman Empire, is a daunting prospect. Add concerns about the environmental performance of various modes of transport and the ferocious competition between trade blocs, and the task becomes Herculean.

It is a job for a wily political operator and Jacques Barrot, the European Commissioner for transport, certainly fits the bill. A 71-year-old veteran of French politics, he served as an MP from 1967 to 2004 for the centre-right UMP party and held posts at the housing, industry and health ministries. Switching to European politics in 2004, he first served as Commissioner for Regional Policy before moving to the transport commission, with responsibilities ranging from spacecraft to bicycle routes.

Barrot is keen to study how the European member states handle transportation problems. For example, the Commission’s green paper on urban mobility, whose consultation period closed last month, aims to free up the flow of people around towns and cities while also reducing transport emissions. Technologies such as energy-efficient vehicles and fuels, traffic management and control are under consideration. But for Barrot, the starting point is to look at the cities in Europe and see what they can teach each other.

‘We’re preparing an action plan for urban mobility in the autumn, which will be like a toolbox of measures. The idea is to let mayors choose from within this toolbox the methods or means that they think is best for their cities,’ he said. ‘But we don’t want to stand in the shoes of the mayors: we don’t want to replace them, or choose for them.’

One of the goals of the green paper is to prevent different cities from adopting clashing transport solutions. ‘We want to avoid the situation where we have a number of towns and cities using urban charging schemes that are entirely different from what is applied elsewhere,’ he said.

For urban charging systems, it is essential to know where the traffic is, and Barrot is keen to promote the use of technology in finding out. He is a strong advocate of the Galileo global positioning satellite constellation programme, which he sees as instrumental in solving a range of transport-related problems.

‘With Galileo, we’ll have much more precise positioning on land, sea and in space, down to a metre,’ he said. ‘And, at the same time, we’ll be able to combine this much more precise positioning with information and communication technologies. Thus, we’ll be able to help urban citizens have a much clearer idea of congestion that exists in real time on a particular route.’

Galileo has been beset with delays but the second test satellite, Giove B, constructed by EADS Astrium, is to be launched this month. ‘It contains all the major technological appliances that will allow the constellation to work; it gets all those technologies into place,’ Barrot said. This, he added, will ensure that Galileo will not be overtaken by rival technologies.

‘Galileo is based on a technology which is itself the outcome of a considerable amount of preparatory work,’ he said. ‘The Americans will probably improve on their present GPS system but that won’t become operational until 2015, while Galileo will be operational by 2013.’

Barrot is also adamant that Galileo will be a more reliable and versatile system than GPS, whose role was primarily conceived as military. ‘Galileo is a dedicated civil system,’ he said, ‘but GPS, being military, can be suspended overnight by the Pentagon for security reasons.’ This means many more applications can be considered for Galileo, and he said considerable research resources are being devoted to this over the next four years.

‘We’re particularly interested in monitoring the transport of dangerous goods, rescue for victims of road accidents and weather forecasting,’ he said. ‘But there are also some extremely interesting applications in the aviation area, which will make it possible to fit three aircraft safely into an air corridor in which currently just one aircraft can travel.’ This will be particularly useful for major airports, as it would drastically reduce, or even eliminate, the stacking of aircraft waiting to land.

The improvement of air traffic control is one of three ‘levers’ the EC has to reduce emissions from aircraft, Barrot said. The second is the Clean Skies technological programme, a €1.6bn (£1.3bn) public-private partnership, which is developing more efficient aircraft engines.

The third is the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) — and it is this that is bringing all Barrot’s considerable skills as an international negotiator into play.

The ETS will come into force for aircraft in 2011 or 2012, depending on the outcome of talks between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Emissions trading rights will be awarded or sold at auction, with an initial proportion of 20 per cent available on the open market. By 2020, however, the airlines will have to buy all of their emissions permits at auction.

But there is a problem. ‘We have to maintain competitiveness vis-à-vis American airlines, and we want the US to agree either to join our system or to develop an equivalent system. We’re in for a discussion that is going to be very difficult.’

This is a typical Barrot under-statement. The US administration has blocked the aviation industry from taking part in emissions trading talks, and Barrot has said he will consider restricting the US airlines’ access to transatlantic routes if the Americans will not play ball. ‘Australia and Canada seem to be moving in the right direction,’ he said. ‘Now, via bilateral contacts, we’re going to have to convince the US, China and India. We hope that the renewal of the American administration after the election will make it possible for us to make progress there.’

In the meantime, Barrot is keen to promote the use of rail instead of air travel wherever possible, and is distributing €5bn-worth of grants to encourage member states to build high-speed train lines. This will involve the building of new lines rather than the upgrading of existing ones, because a vital aspect of this policy is the freeing-up of existing routes for freight transport. ‘We think for a real modal shift, a transfer of transport from roads to railways, we have to have sufficient capacity on the rails for freight transport, and for this we need dedicated lines, like they have in the US. I shall be preparing a communication on those dedicated freight lines.’

Meanwhile, Barrot is also working on policies to ensure cars and trucks generate as little carbon dioxide as possible. The EC’s plans to reduce vehicle carbon emissions from new cars from 160g/km to 120g/km, announced in December, were criticised by environmentalists for not being tough enough, but Barrot is adamant that more stringent targets would have been counter-productive.

‘We have to be careful. If we require of car manufacturers that they make very clean cars, that will increase the cost of these cars. The issue is not only to have cleaner new cars, but to bring about a quicker rotation of the car fleet. We have to eliminate as many old cars as possible, so we can’t make it inordinately expensive to change from an old car to a new car.’

Barrot is also concerned with road freight, and he thinks road charging for lorries could have an impact on emissions. ‘I’m preparing a method that will make it possible to calculate the external cost — the cost of pollution — for each freight transport mode,’ he said. ‘And I shall be reviewing the European Vignette Directive to find a system that internalises this externality — that is, a flexible charging system that will make it possible to take account of the quality of the lorry and the time of day in which it is running. That will make it possible to have differentiated tolls to encourage road haulage companies to purchase lorries according to the best European standards.’

For the moment, this will apply only to lorries above 3.5 tonnes. However, Barrot says he supports the idea of making the cost of transport reflect the environmental cost.

‘We’re dealing with freight at the moment. For private cars, either we’d have to bring car manufacturing into the ETS, or else we could imagine other toll schemes. But that’s a very difficult issue. We aren’t there yet.’