Paying more, because we are an island: the case for change on EU transport rules

No EU member state, large or small, can sit back and hope that things turn out well. No one can speak for Malta better than the Maltese just as no one is more familiar with Malta than the Maltese

There is a particular caricature of the EU which has had an incredibly long lifespan considering it doesn’t stand to close scrutiny. It’s that France, or Germany, or France and Germany – depending on the bogeyman du jour – run the show, using EU institutions to bend the will of smaller states. EU laws, we are told, are tailored to the interests of these big players and then rammed down the throats of minnows like Malta.

As I write, France is readying itself to have to purchase some €500 million worth of renewable electricity after failing its EU renewables target while Germany’s indiscriminate subsidising of its national economy is being closely examined as it risks destabilising the internal market. There are many other instances I could mention. Truth of the fact is that France and Germany together hold sway in the EU only in so far as they manage to build a relevant gravitas of alliances over time in a smart way, explaining, being present, convincing. That trade is the same for all Member States, including Malta. Being small is just a condition that requires us to do more, and be more united in our resolve.

Container transport to and from Malta

No EU member state, large or small, can sit back and hope that things turn out well. No one can speak for Malta better than the Maltese just as no one is more familiar with Malta than the Maltese. The imperative condition is that our representatives at the European Parliament and our Ministers in the Council of the EU come to the negotiation table prepared and equipped with the views from the territory to amplify their arguments and hence build alliances to gain political mass.

I have seen it first hand in my duties working at the EU Council and the European Parliament: EU member states around the table are normally inclined to support particular needs when these are well explained and sustained with solid arguments. After all, just like us, all want their particular needs treated with the same sense of understanding and sympathy. Yes, it is a scratch my back and I scratch yours. Values and ideologies remain of a fundamental importance as a background, but in a Union of 26 territories with dramatically different conditions and needs, ideology can come in different shapes and forms according to theme and context.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened in the case of the new EU laws on truck transport. As we may all imagine, Malta being a small island with few natural resources, we import virtually all our goods from overseas, with a good chunk of these coming over through road haulage at least for part of the voyage. In 2017 an EU proposal was tabled on working conditions in transport of containers by truck. The proposal essentially forced transport companies to give drivers a couple of days of paid rest after a number of consecutive weeks on the road. This, by itself, is laudable: we all have a right to rest and, in this case, overwork is a sure recipe for road accidents.

However, the EU proposal went as step further than that. The EU mobility package which entered into force in February this year requires not only the driver but also the trucks to return to the place where the employer or the driver are established. That means a 40 hour trip for the Maltese driver the EU law was supposed to protect. That means that truck companies established in Malta, servicing the local economy, have to increase their fleet by one truck in six to service the same hours in the continent.

€360 extra cost – per container

Needless to say, this places Malta at a disadvantage on account of its geography, standing at the edge of the EU’s single market from which it is also separated by stretches of sea. In Brussels last week, I met with the International Road Union (IRU), a transport federation of more than 70 associations from all around the world. The IRU have closely examined the impact of this Directive which came into effect last February and, by their estimate, Malta is now paying €360 more per container than other mainland EU countries. That is the price of one EU law which we failed to adapt to our needs. There are multiple other cases of a similar nature, all piling up to eat out our competitiveness as an island economy.

Had the matter been nipped in the bud five years ago when the Directive was still under negotiations in Brussels, a better compromise for Malta would surely have been found. However, the Government of the day seems to have been distracted with other matters. We cannot risk these failures anymore. Malta is an island with very particular needs. If those around the negotiating table fail to get this point across, then they are causing irreversible prejudice to Malta’s potential as an EU Member State.

Not all is lost – the next opportunity

Maltese households are now indirectly burdened with an extra expense of 360 euro additional transport costs. As we import so much from the rest of the EU, the expenses on each container pile up to a considerable sum. Not all is not lost. The EU periodically reviews its legislation. Transport laws are once being looked into with a view to a revision of the inter-modal transport arrangements.

It is important that this time we speak up early. We should make common cause with other EU Member States, like Cyprus and Ireland, who like us are island nations on the geographical periphery of the single market. In that way, our voice will be amplified. It is always better to work as a team than go alone.

One sure way to start changing the tide is to foresee EU developments well in advance with a view to secure the intervention of stakeholders on the ground. The Chambers of Commerce, the NGOs, Unions, other entities and individuals with relevant experience need to be involved in advance to refine an efficient Malta position equipped with solid arguments capable of swaying an EU majority in Malta’s support.

Secondly, we must address the systemic disadvantage that islands like Malta face when new EU legislation is presented on the basis of impact assessments prepared form feedback from continental territories. There is the cost of insularity which is never really taken into accounts sufficiently in EU legislation. In many areas this test of ‘the cost of insularity’ may be futile as new developments can impact a family in Dusseldorf just the same as a family in Zebbuġ. In other areas however, in particular for transport, new EU rules may have dramatically different impacts in Malta as compared to the mainland. It is just not fair nor reasonable for the EU to propose new rules oblivious to the additional costs faced by the Maltese.

The €360 extra charge for trucking is not an isolated case. Right now we are risking a higher bill for passenger flights and for air cargo too. For the above reasons in 2020 I proposed to include an imperative new requirement for the European Commission for this to be obliged to include the ‘cost of insularity’ as an additional criterion when its services conduct impact assessments for new EU legislation.

My proposal was supported by many on the online forums leading to the Future of Europe Conference. It is time to rekindle that movement.