Victory in Brussels: Public Transport Can Stay in Public Hands


May 30, 2007 9:26 | by Steve McGiffen

On May 10th the European Parliament and Council of Transport Ministers finally agreed that local and regional public transport can, in principle, remain in the hands of public authorities.

It is seven years ago since the two bodies received a proposal from the European Commission which would have resulted in the forced privatisation of all such services. Everyone expected the proposal to be accepted on the nod, as the vast majority of Euro-MPs and almost all Ministers of Transport are wedded to neoliberal dogma.

Step forward Erik Meijer, possibly the only Euro-MP who regularly takes any public transport whatsoever (other than High Speed Trains, and airliners). Erik, from the radical left Socialist Party of the Netherlands, never flies and does not own a car. He travels from his modest home in Rotterdam to his offices in Brussels and Strasbourg by tram and train. Perhaps because his colleagues recognise that this makes him ideal for the job, he has long been coordinator of the work done by the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) of MEPs on the European Parliament's Transport Committee.

When a proposal for a new measure arrives from the Commission, the Parliament appoints a single MEP to act as its "Rapporteur". He or she is then responsible for researching the issues involved and convening meetings of representatives of all the groups to try to find positions which can win majority support.

These positions are distributed under a reasonably fair system. Big groups get most of these positions, but relatively small ones such as the 41-strong GUE-NGL receive the same proportion of 'Reports' as they have members. By allowing less important matters to go elsewhere, Meijer, as his group's coordinator, was able to outbid other groups and win the report.

"I knew that the EU wanted to get rid of publicly owned passenger transport" Erik explains "just as they want to see the back of public ownership in postal services and energy supply. From the start I have been determined to find a way to stop these plans from being realised. But that would only be successful if we could mobilise opposition throughout Europe. This is what we managed to do, and it paid off."

Generally, everyday public transport in towns, cities or regions is not a profitable business. So why should multinationals like the British firm Arriva, or the French Veolia/Connex/BBA want to move in on it?

The answer is that they're after your money and mine, not in the form of honest and affordable fares, but in state subsidies. The winner of the tender would be the firm which asked for the least support from the taxpayer.

In presenting its case, the Commission did have one powerful argument. Major publicly-owned state-subsidised transport providers, such as the Parisian RER, could as things stood nevertheless compete for tenders in other parts of the world. Private corporations were complaining that this put them at a disadvantage. The French taxpayer was in effect paying for the RER to claim lower subsidies elsewhere and thus win foreign tenders.

Ironically, it was this single nugget of reasoned argument in a murky river of pro-privatisation prejudice which enabled Erik Meijer to win the day. The proposal was that all tram, bus, metro and train services in need of state subsidy would be put out to tender. Erik's major amendment was that publicly-owned enterprises in the sector should be given a choice: either they could continue to receive state subsidies, or they could bid to run services in other parts of the EU.

Perhaps it was the sheer reasonableness of this proposed amendment, or perhaps it was the use of the buzzword 'choice', but from the very beginning Erik Meijer found that he could persuade MEPs from the centre-left and Green groups and even beyond that they should back him.

The Commission promised that the measure, if left intact, would mean lower fares. Meijer was told that the existing situation was in longstanding conflict with the rules laid down in the EU treaty, that the measure's consequences had already been exhaustively studied and that the reform must be instituted as quickly as possible.

Meijer did not agree, however, and in working together with major cities, national organisations of local authorities, trade unions and consumers' organisations and environmentalist groups he formed an entirely different picture of the situation. Meijer was able to show that where deregulation had led to an apparent reduction in costs, these had been achieved primarily by driving down wages and cutting corners on safety. Small private firms would be unable to compete in the tender process. Small-scale, localised public monopolies would be replaced by large-scale monopolies in private hands, and in a short space of time this would result in higher fares and higher subsidies for services of poorer quality. Experiments in some areas with free public transport, as well as the now popular creation of new urban tram networks, would be endangered.

In 2001 the European Parliament voted by a large majority in favour of Meijer's amendments. Public authorities would remain free to organise their passenger transport services in a non-commercial manner, but only if the amended measure were also approved by the member states. This took until the end of 2006, but at the end of last year the bulk of Meijer's proposals were carried by the EU Council of Transport Ministers.

Following this, however, some right-wing MEPs attempted to reverse some of Meijer's original amendments, and he had to return to the negotiating table to try to reach an agreement.

"On the one hand I took all the reasonable proposals from the Parliament on board and tried to defend them, which won me broad support from the different political groups," Meijer explained. "On the other I convinced the Council that they should throw out a number of amendments which would have meant more market and less freedom of choice for local and regional authorities."

Erik Meijer is a very unusual politician. A quiet, modest man who goes about his work with little fuss, he was able to take on and beat a European Commission which cares more about the 'right' of multinationals to make a fast euro than it does about ordinary people's rights to safe, efficient transport or transport workers' rights to decent conditions.

Like a judo expert, he used his opponents' strength to defeat them, successfully demonstrating that the market can narrow choice as well as, just perhaps, sometimes expanding it.

Steve McGiffen edits spectrezine, 'the voice of the EU-critical left in Europe'.

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