No exit found in EU-Austria transit dispute

Five member states vote against Commission compromise plan; court action threatened

EU transport ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday failed to agree a controversial plan to limit the number of heavy goods vehicles transiting Austria. Sources predicted that diplomats would fail to overcome differences in the three months remaining, after which the European Commission will be forced to adopt its original proposal. Austria and Italy said they would launch legal action if this happened.

On joining the EU in 1995, Austria won agreement for a method of rationing lorries crossing its territory by granting set numbers of "ecopoints". The current crisis has been sparked by a clause specifying a big cut in permits following any exceedence of a given traffic ceiling. This has been triggered, threatening drastic cuts in allowable traffic for the rest of this year with potentially huge economic impacts.

The Commission's proposed solution is to spread the required cuts in ecopoint availability over four years and impose the burden mainly on the countries that most use the affected routes: Austria, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Greece (ENDS Daily 24 May).

Though a majority of EU ministers backed the Commission's proposal yesterday, these five countries voted against, collectively mustering enough votes to form a blocking minority under the EU's qualified majority voting system.

Austria argues that the immediate traffic cuts required under the accession agreement should stand, saying it is willing to reduce its own traffic to cut pollution. The other four countries say there is no need for any traffic restrictions, arguing that nitrogen oxides pollution from traffic has decreased, in line with the scheme's original rationale.

Road hauliers today harshly criticised ministers' failure to agree the compromise proposal. The International Road Transport Union (IRU) claimed their "inability to decide" would harm both European competitiveness and the environment.

Barely 10% of the 100,000 transits that would be cut in 2000 under the Commission's plan could be switched to rail, the IRU said, "given that Austria has blatantly failed to put in place the additional rail capacity needed...as required" under its EU accession agreement. Traffic volumes would not be reduced, but just diverted to other Alpine routes, increasing costs and transport distances, and therefore emissions, the association complained.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111. See also the council minutes. IRU, tel: +41 22 918 2700, and press release.

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