EU green transport meeting "short on policy"

Joint transport and environment ministerial meeting fails to impress Kinnock, NGOs

EU transport and environment ministers met jointly in Luxembourg yesterday at what should have been the high point of the outgoing UK presidency's aim to integrate environment into other areas of policy making. But the event was seen by many observers - officials, NGOs and even the EU transport commissioner - as a symbolic occasion, lacking in meaningful policy commitments.

UK environment minister Michael Meacher said the meeting - the first of its kind as ministers usually meet in sectoral "Council of Ministers" meeting - was an example of the UK's policy to "deepen and widening the greening of Europe".

Following the ministers' meeting EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock seemed in down-beat mood, claiming that transport ministers had consistently failed to adopt policy proposals that were vital for environmentally sustainable transport. "There's a list of proposals but we have yet to get the active endorsement of the Council [of ministers]," he said. Despite this, the joint meeting was a good precedent, he said, and the chances of making progress on policies such as transport pricing and the modal switch from road to rail were "now much greater".

The NGO European Federation for Transport and the Environment (T&E) was unimpressed with the joint meeting, saying that the UK presidency had failed to make any progress on the key transport issues of internalising external costs - such as pollution, congestion and accidents - into transport pricing and action on aviation and car emissions.

A Brussels diplomat who was involved in drafting the ministers' "conclusions", which were published immediately after the meeting, said the text had been significantly watered down. A commitment by ministers to "support progress towards integrating environmental costs into transport" was replaced by much weaker wording at the insistence of Mediterranean states which fear an increase in the cost of road haulage. The draft text had also included a commitment to "open up the market for rail freight," but this proved unacceptable to the French who are concerned about the effects of rail liberalisation on employment.

Even the UK deputy prime minister John Prescott repeated to journalists after the meeting in Luxembourg yesterday the words of EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock that the EU was "not short on policy but short on political decision". The point of joint meetings like this was to change the political culture, he insisted and pointed out that the EU would now look at holding similar meetings between environment ministers and their counterparts in both energy and agriculture.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: + 32 2 285 6111.

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