Why it’s hard to build a European transport policy

When he was French President, Charles de Gaulle memorably pondered his challenge. “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”,he asked. But if that is France, what does it mean for the European Union? And specifically, how can the EU build its transport policy?

Of course, this challenge has been the case since the very start of the European project, more than six decades ago when the original six signatories of the Treaty of Rome attempted to build a framework for cooperation.

When it comes to transport, the issue is complicated. How much citizens travel and the total of goods that are ferried across the 28 EU member states vary. The extent of this diversity is laid out in two recent Eurostat surveys.


The first survey, on vehicle journeys, reveals who are Europe’s biggest drivers, who likes buses, and who likes trains. Cars are by far the most important mode for passenger transport in all member states, accounting for 83% of passenger-km across the EU, compared with 9% for coaches, buses and trolley buses, and 8% for trains.

Portugal came top for cars, with a 89.4% figure, followed by Lithuania with 89.2% – while the Czech Republic and Hungary were the only member states were the shares of cars were below three quarters. For train travel, Austria had the highest proportion of passenger-km (12%), followed by the Netherlands (10.8%), but this was well below EFTA country Switzerland, where trains carried out 19.1% of all passenger transport. For coaches, buses and trolley buses, Hungary had the highest proportion (22%).


When it comes to freight, road transport continues to carry three-quarters (76.4%) of total inland freight transport in the EU, according to Eurostat’s separate freight statistics. Rail transport accounts for 17.4% of the EU total, while inland waterways are just 6.2% of the total inland transport performance.

Again, there are regional variations. Cyprus and Malta do not have either railways or navigable inland waterways, so the share of road freight transport is 100% by default in both member states. But road transport is also very high in other member states, scoring 91.5% in the UK and 94.7% in Spain.

By contrast, road transport accounts for less than a quarter of the inland freight transported in Latvia (23.4%), with the remainder (76.6%) sent by rail. Rail also plays an important role for its Baltic neighbours, Lithuania (65.0%) and Estonia (42.9%). And the share of inland waterways is substantially higher in the Netherlands (44.6%), with high shares also recorded in Romania (29.4%), Bulgaria (27.2%) and Belgium (15.3%).

This is dynamic data: Eurostat notes the rapid increase in global trade and the deepening integration of an enlarged EU, alongside a range of economic practices all help explain the fast growth of freight and personal travel in recent years.

What does this all mean for the EU’s transport policy? As with so much to do with the EU, it shows how much variation there is. If there are rules that make one mode easier, it can give some member states a competitive advantage. We can see this happening now, as the EU regulates emissions, railway operations, cabotage and even air traffic. But it is also the EU’s eternal challenge to manage these interests through cooperation and compromise.