Austrians struggle to unblock truck toll plan

EU transport ministers try yet again to get agreement on Eurovignette directive

The Austrian presidency of the EU faces a struggle on Monday as its attempts to unblock a political impasse over tolls for lorries crossing the Alps which has held up two important political dossiers.

EU transport ministers will gather in Brussels on Monday to try to make an agreement on the revised "Eurovignette" directive on road-use charges for lorries. The dossier has been held up for two years because of disagreements over the levels of supplementary tolls for environmentally sensitive routes and the effect that a co-operation agreement with Switzerland would have on lorry traffic in the Alps.

As the current EU presidency, it falls to Austria to steer through a compromise, but national delegations rejected its latest proposal this week and it will now be up to the ministers themselves to try to reach an agreement.

Ironically, the main stumbling block remains Austrian concerns over the number of heavy goods vehicles using the Brenner motorway as a transit point through the Alps. It fears that maximum tolls of Ecu84 foreseen under the draft directive will not be sufficient to limit traffic on the route.

It also worries that the pending deal negotiated with Switzerland to open its roads to more EU lorry traffic will not ease the situation as Switzerland will be able to charge around Ecu200 per transit. Austria reckons that 450,000 lorries a year that would geographically be better placed to cross through Switzerland, are currently using the Brenner instead.

Austria's latest ploy was to suggest a safeguard clause in the Eurovignette directive that it could invoke if the Swiss deal resulted in a continued diversion of transit traffic over the Brenner. The proposal would have allowed Austria to retain its "eco-point" quota system, which limits the number of foreign lorries that can transit the country. Under Austria's accession agreement with the EU the eco-point system will otherwise have to be abolished by 2003.

If ministers can reach an agreement on the Eurovignette, they may also be able to steer through the Swiss agreement. The deal would lift Switzerland's ban on lorries over 28 tonnes and allow unlimited access to standard EU 40-tonne trucks from 2005.

Switzerland concluded negotiations with the Commission in January. In addition to transport, the agreement covers free movement of people and free market measures, but the whole deal has been held up over the road transport section (ENDS Daily 19 March).

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

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