What the EU’s new trucking rules mean

Truck drivers are almost literally the motors of the economy. They transport nearly everything we buy and use, and without them, our lives would grind to a halt. Their importance was underlined at the start of the coronavirus crisis when borders closed and businesses shuttered, putting vital supplies at risk. Truckers do a vital job – and a tough one: they drive long hours, in difficult working conditions far from home. As some of the European Union’s most regular cross-border travellers, shouldn’t they be offered basic social protections?

For the past three years, the EU has been trying to set rules for truck drivers, and a new reform was finally confirmed on July 9 when the European Parliament voted on the so-called Mobility Package.

 

Splitting the EU along geographical lines

The Mobility Package’s stated aim is to improve the working conditions of around three million truck drivers, ensuring a level-playing field between more than half a million European transport companies. Drivers will be able to return to their country of origin every four weeks and will have to take their long weekly rests outside their trucks. It will be harder for trucks to operate in a foreign member state – and when they do, local salary levels will apply.

However, it is fair to say that despite the three years of intense debate, the issue is still touchy.

The measure split the EU along geographical lines. The western, older EU members insisted the package was needed to ensure basic standards for both drivers and trucking companies, so there is no race to the bottom or social dumping when it comes to offering services.

Disrupting the EU Single Market

Backed by road transport unions, they insisted that truck driving had to be made more secure, better paid and less bureaucratic. “The mobility package promotes fair competition between operators and improves road safety as well as drivers’ working conditions,” said Finnish EPP MEP Henna Virkkunen, who co-authored the legislation. “The European single market cannot properly function without fair common rules which are uniformly controlled and enforced.”

But the newer, mainly eastern members said the proposals would undermine the freedom to provide services, one of the EU’s four fundamental freedoms. In a strongly-worded joint statement issued just before MEPs approved the package, nine eastern EU members said the measure would restrict their access to the transport market – as they are generally cheaper than their western counterparts. “The new provisions disrupt the EU single market by introducing artificial administrative barriers. At the same time, they go against the EU’s ambitious climate goals,” they said. In other words, the measure is seen as a protectionist block on cheaper, more efficient competition from eastern Europe.

After the vote, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius described it as “deplorable”, adding that, “This decision will bring no benefits for European citizens and will complicate post-COVID-19 recovery.”

Is this about social standards or competitiveness?

Critics also say the demand for trucks to return to their home base regularly undermines the EU’s climate plans, producing up to three million extra tonnes of emissions every year. Even though EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Vălean said she welcomed the Parliament’s vote, she warned that, “some elements that are possibly not in line with the European Green Deal’s ambitions.”

All this shows how the EU is still struggling with its single market. The freedom that it promises also implies opening up the market to competition. Western members say this is about upholding basic social standards, eastern ones say it is about competitiveness. Although MEPs may have settled the issue for now, the debate is likely to continue for a long time to come.