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Interview

Jos Dings, A 'natural born analyst' in Brussels

Jos Dings doesn’t consider himself a natural politician. Yet it was a desire to get closer to European environmental politics that brought him to Brussels in 2004 to become director of T&E, the European Federation for Transport and Environment.
“I’m much more a natural born analyst,” he says, then laughs as he realises his colleagues are listening to our conversation through the open door of the meeting room. He is happy to leave it open. “If it bothers them we can close it.”
Educated in mechanical engineering at Delft University of Technology, Mr Dings stayed in the Dutch city to work for CE Delft, a non-profit consultancy specialising in technical analysis of environmental policy. He eventually became head of its transport division, carrying out impact assessments and economic analyses in areas such as aviation and road transport.
While he built up CE Delft’s EU transport policy work, he found the political dimension was lacking. “I wanted to be as politically relevant as possible, but the job description made it difficult to fit that in,” he says. “I saw that the communications and the political side of what I was doing were not strong, and I decided I wanted a job that challenged me to develop these things.”
The director’s position at T&E fell vacant at the right time, both personally and professionally, and Mr Dings made the move to Brussels.
He is the third person to lead the federation since it was created in 1989 to campaign at EU level for sustainable transport. It has a membership of 49 non-governmental organisations in 21 countries, ranging from champions of particular transport modes, such as railways and bicycles, to broader consumer and environmental campaign groups.
Although Mr Dings wanted to work more closely with communication when he came to T&E, he didn’t take the work on himself. “I have a very clear picture of what I can and cannot do personally, and what the office needs,” he says.
His first move was to hire a communications manager. He remains convinced that getting T&E’s message across is an important aspect of its work in Brussels.
“The key asset that we have is credibility and reputation,” he explains. “You have to work on that meticulously, day in, day out, to make sure that you are respected and that what you say cannot be dismissed as just another ridiculous ‘greenies’ argument.”
This provides the backbone of the organisation’s work, but it is not enough. “If you don’t get the message out to the relevant people, you can be as credible as hell but nobody listens to you. So it’s a multiplication of these two factors: the quality, thoroughness and credibility of what you do, times the intensity with which you bring it to the relevant people’s attention.”
With a number of additional policy appointments, Mr Dings now feels T&E’s staff of nine has the right balance of skills, even if the volume of work remains demanding.
“We need to be very restrictive in our priority-setting,” he explains. “I profoundly believe it is better to have three or four priorities and score victories on them than to spread ourselves thinly and to follow everything.”
Mr Dings has tried to make T&E’s priorities more explicit. They now take in the technological issues of clean vehicles and fuels, and in particular the setting of standards; economic incentives, such as track charging and fuel taxation; and aviation and shipping, both areas requiring specific expertise. A final, lower-profile task is tracking EU transport investment.
Although transport’s role in climate change is a major concern, T&E leaves the business of international summits to others.
“We choose to tackle [climate change] by taking on really specialist files such as on cars and the fuel quality directive, which has greenhouse gas targets for transport fuels, aviation and emissions trading. These are three top files for our organisation that no other sees as a top priority.”
While these are areas where Brussels holds the power, the main challenge of bringing sustainable transport to Europe is harder to influence from here. Decisions on the boundary conditions for road charging have an effect, for example, but implementation lies with EU and local governments. Equally, only a small percentage of transport infrastructure investment comes from the EU.
“The influence that Europe has on really producing a modal shift is sometimes over-estimated,” Mr Dings concedes. “It’s much more about having a comprehensive transport policy in which national, regional and local level play 95 per cent of the role and maybe the last few per cent is European policy.”

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