Rescuing public transport from the fanatics of the market


June 27, 2006 8:47 | by Steve McGiffen

The argument for local and regional control of public transport

A meeting of European Union transport ministers in Brussels earlier this month took a series of decisions which we can only greet with relief.

The important aspect of the issue under consideration was whether or not to force local and regional authorities to abandon their responsibility to provide an affordable and efficient system of public transport.

If the text of the ministers' agreement finally becomes law, public authorities will retain a high degree of autonomy, allowing them to keep public transport under their own control. Compulsory tendering for bus, train, tram and underground systems, as advocated by the unelected European Commission, is dropped for almost all categories and the expectation is that only regional bus transport will remain partly subject to tender.

The ministers' agreement represents the end of the "first reading" - half-time in the European Union's labyrinthine legislative system. Under that system, one Member of the European Parliament is given responsibility for co-ordinating the assembly's input. Known as the "Rapporteur," he or she will, under the proportional system of distribution by which the parliament organises its work, sometimes come from the left.

Happily - because, bizarrely, this really can make a difference to the final result - this was the case on this occasion, where the rapporteur Erik Meijer comes from the Dutch Socialist Party, a radical left party which forms the Dutch section of the United Left Group/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).

Meijer was a good choice. Not only is he a former urban transport planner, he is one of the few MEPs who relies on public transport, owning no car and travelling weekly from his Rotterdam home to Brussels and Strasbourg by train and bus, so that he at least knows what he is talking about.

Meijer was cautious in his welcome of an agreement which he nevertheless described as a "victory." It would, he pointed out, mean that more space would be available for experiments with free public transport and special fares for particular groups such as old people, the unemployed or students. Instead of the market determining all, public authorities would be able to take decisions on the basis of economic criteria which could include true cost-benefit analysis and consideration of real public good.

Long-term goals could be pursued and socially and environmentally beneficial systems developed.

Meijer also warned, however, that there is a long way to go. A meeting of the European Parliament's transport committee, which took place a few days after the agreement was reached, revealed that, when the parliament reconvenes after its summer recess and the text returns for further consideration, much work will remain to be done.

Christian Democrats and Liberals, the two centre-right groups which together form a majority of MEPs, revealed that they were unhappy with the accord and, specifically, with the watering down of the requirements on tendering. German Christian Democrat Georg Jarzembowski, the group's transport co-ordinator and a neoliberal fanatic, said that "the parliament must put the teeth back into the regulation when it comes back for its second reading."

Transport commissioner Jacques Barrot, however, replying to this, said that the agreement represented a compromise between the market and "social Europe."

"For the first time, the commission is recognising that some economic services, such as public transport, are of general social importance," Meijer said during the debate, "and that member states therefore retain the right to subsidise these services without there being any question of unfair competition through financial support from the state. This is truly a first in this neoliberal never-never land."

Meijer knows full well what the results of the European Commission's original proposal would have been. In the Netherlands, public transport was thrown to the market wolves five years ago, with disastrous consequences in a country which, for more than half a century, had represented best practice in local, regional and national systems. The result has been gridlocked roads within and between cities.

The government's proposed solution is to charge motorists according to the distance that they travel.

This may seem environmentally friendly, but, as Kathleen van Brempt, the minister in charge of the superb public transport systems in the neighbouring Belgian autonomous region of Flanders said recently, to run down public transport and then charge people for the consequences is hardly fair.

Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, which has around six million inhabitants, demonstrates that, by investing in public transport, it's possible to get traffic moving again. A mix of subsidised, affordable, efficient systems, bold experiments - in one town, Hasselt, buses are free to all - and tight anti-pollution regulation has made the region a model for the world. In the last 10 years, use of urban and regional public transport has doubled, while the number of kilometres travelled by car has now stabilised.

Local and regional public transport should be under local and regional control. It is for elected national parliaments and governments to set the framework for that control.

The European Commission's excuse for sticking its nose into what is, by any standards, hardly a "European" issue, is that it is necessary to prevent publicly owned or state-subsidised transport corporations from entering into unfair competition by bidding to buy deregulated services in other parts of the EU.

Fair enough, but this would be achievable with a simple ban which need have no effect on the decisions taken by democratically elected authorities which simply want to fulfil their responsibility to provide a public service service in their own areas.

This is so clearly the case that it reveals the Commission's argument to be what it is - one of the lamest and most transparent excuses for enforced deregulation that it has ever come out with. Despite the commissioner's defence of the agreement, there can be little doubt that he will back any European Parliament attempt to give it back the "teeth" with which it would have ripped the heart from public transport in 25 member states.

The bus you catch to work, the tram that you take to town so that you can safely enjoy a drink on a night out and the train that you get on to travel around your region have absolutely nothing to do with fanatical deregulating eurocrats who have invariably not seen the inside of a public transport vehicle - other than business class on planes and first class high-speed train carriages - since their student days.

Steve McGiffen is spectrezine's editor and the author of The European Union: A Critical Guide (Pluto Press, 2005)

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