Sustainable transport will be one of the EU’s next priorities  

The campaign for the European Parliament elections in May featured a wide range of debates on the future of the Europe and its role in a complex, fast-changing world. But even before the vote, it was already clear that one of the European Union’s priorities for the next five years would be developing a sustainable transport policy.

Sustainability has been one of the leitmotifs of the European Commission under outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker, and one of the areas where he can claim to have made a difference in the EU’s policies over his five-year term. His officials are determined to keep this up during the next mandate.

The Commission unveiled its so-called ‘Strength in Unity’ strategic agenda at the end of April, looking ahead at the challenges for the new Commission and the Parliament. The agenda – which was also discussed by EU leaders at their special May 9 summit in Sibiu, Romania – tackles areas like eurozone rules, migration and defence. But it is sustainability that emerges as one of the strongest themes.

Transport is a key element of one of the five challenges the Commission lists, ‘Competitive Europe’, which focuses on upgrading, modernising and fully implementing the single market. “We need to provide a modern and flexible regulatory framework for mobility and transport, particularly for automated and connected mobility,” it says.

The Commission argues that EU rules must protect transport systems against emerging and evolving threats to safe mobility, such as cyber-attacks. “We need to reduce the environmental and climate impact of our transport systems. That means urgently deploying alternative fuels, further improving vehicle standards on COemissions, pollutants and noise,” it says, calling for a “truly circular economy approach” that addresses the social impact of transitioning to cleaner and more automated transport.

In addition, it wants to complete the Single European Transport Area, and says the EU should take the lead in shaping new international standards for “safe, smart, sustainable, secure and resilient mobility”

Transport is integral to another of the challenges, ‘Sustainable Europe’, which it describes as fighting climate change, reversing environmental degradation, and transitioning towards a more resource-efficient circular economy. The agenda says the EU needs, “to modernise our economy to embrace sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

These sustainability challenges have been building up for a long time, but there has been an added urgency just in the past few years. The 2015 Paris Agreement set new, stricter targets for cutting emissions; the United Nations has warned that global efforts to tackle climate change are way off track; the so-called Dieselgate scandal exposed industry efforts to bypass emission-cutting for cars and trucks; and traffic congestion has become worse in almost every major city around the world.

But all these challenges are also opportunities for the EU to take the global lead. The EU has shown over the years that it can recognize the big issues on its agenda. Even if it takes time for the big European machine to address them, the eventual collective effect of 28 EU member states (or 27…) acting together is very powerful. The next EU team will have a full in-tray – and transport will among the priorities.