The UK media tends to treat EU directives and regulations as though they appear out of nowhere with no warning. In fact, of course, they are always preceded by reports and proposals, which make it possible to predict with a fair degree of accuracy what legislation is heading our way. With that in mind, Paul Clarke forecasts changes in the rules on cabotage in the not-too-distant future.

Over here and under-cutting

Hauliers are protective of their national markets and, although drivers in the UK have the added problem of paying more for fuel than incomers from the rest of the EU, haulage companies in the other Member States are just as likely to complain when they lose a job to a foreign competitor. Leading French hauliers' organisation FNTR, for example, is currently arguing that the lower employment costs in Bulgaria and Romania gave firms from those countries an unfair advantage and that the arrival of their drivers, in competition with domestic hauliers, is "generating new tensions". The reason that drivers from the A2 countries (the most recent to accede to the Union) have suddenly appeared on the scene is because, despite joining the EU in 2007, they had to wait until January this year before they were allowed cabotage rights.

Cabotage still accounts for only a fraction (2%) of total road freight transport activities in the EU. However, cabotage activities are growing and, in 2010, the tonne- kilometres (km) generated by EU hauliers in such operations were 17% higher than in 2009. In the same year, road haulage generated 1.76 trillion tonne-km, one third of which involved international transport operations.

Right to operate in another Member State

The two main areas where countries new to the EU tend to have to wait before being given full Treaty rights are the free movement of workers and cabotage, which indicates that the European Commission recognises that these are two of the most sensitive issues when it comes to European integration. While the arrival of "Polish plumbers" tended to capture the headlines, the Commission has also had to move very cautiously when it came to trying to open up the internal market to foreign transport operators.

Cabotage is defined as the national carriage of goods for hire or reward carried out by non-resident hauliers on a temporary basis in a host Member State. It is governed in the EU by Regulation 1072/2009, which was adopted to improve the efficiency of road freight transport by cutting down the number of empty trips after international transport deliveries. Most of the rules laid down by the regulation with regard to access to the international road haulage market did not come into force until 4 December 2011. However, the two articles regarding cabotage have been effective since 14 May 2010.

Protecting the home market

Prior to the adoption of the regulation, a series of national restrictions prevented hauliers from picking up and delivering goods within their country of destination when they were driving across borders. While this served to protect local road haulage operations, it meant that trucks were forced to return empty, wasting time and fuel and producing unnecessary emissions. After long debate between the Member States and with the European Parliament, a compromise was reached that allowed hauliers to undertake a maximum of three cabotage trips within their country of destination, within seven days of their initial international delivery. A haulier may decide to carry out one, two or all three cabotage operations in different Member States and not necessarily the Member State in which the initial delivery was made. In such a case, only one cabotage operation is allowed in a given Member State, to be carried out within three days of entering that Member State without cargo.

The regulation specifically states that "cabotage operations should not be prohibited as long as they are not carried out in a way that creates a permanent or continuous activity within that Member State". This recognised the fear in the older-established Member States of the EU (France, Germany and the UK) that transport operators based in the lower-wage economies to the east would simply repeat operations in the same country every seven days. That this fear has not gone away is apparent from the French complaints mentioned above, when the A2 countries were given the green light to start running cabotage operations.

It is worth noting that Croatia, the next country to join the Union, has already been told that its companies will be excluded from cabotage for two years following its accession. They will also be barred from the operation of transport services exclusively within the borders of another Member State. (The same exception will apply in Croatia for operators from other Member States.) Furthermore, this transitional period could be extended by another two years.

Opening up to competition

Clearly, the Commission has a difficult task in persuading the Member States that allowing more cabotage would be a good idea but, by next year, it has promised to assess the EU road haulage market and determine "whether conditions are ripe for further market opening" with particular regard to the effectiveness of controls, the employment conditions in the profession, and whether enforcement of social rules has progressed to a point where further liberalisation can be considered. This commitment is set out in the 2011 White Paper on achieving a Single European Transport Area.

In this key policy document, the Commission stated its belief in a Transport Area in which all modes of transport benefit from a single market with harmonised rules and in which restrictions on the activities of non-resident operators are kept to a minimum, "if not completely eliminated". Those last few words should be emphasised as they seem to indicate the direction in which the Commission is going in this debate. When the promised 2013 report appears, it is almost certain to suggest greater freedom for cabotage operations and quite possibly the lifting of all restrictions.

Travelling empty

At a public hearing in March 2012 into the future of the road haulage market — designed to gather information from the industry to feed into the Commission's deliberations — it was pointed out that, in 2010, almost a quarter of all vehicle-km carried out by heavy goods vehicles in the EU involved an empty vehicle. This goes against the objective of a resource-efficient road transport sector, the Commission stressed, and against the need for an efficient European transport and logistics system, crucial for the competitiveness of the overall economy. By giving domestic hauliers a competitive advantage on their own markets, it also distorts competition in the internal market.

A high-level group of independent academic experts has therefore been asked to deliver its assessment on the situation of the internal market for road haulage by May 2012.

The Commission has promised to take the experts' assessment into account in its forthcoming report and said that, if appropriate, this report would be accompanied by a legislative proposal to further open up cabotage. While it would be unfair to say that this fact-finding exercise is a smokescreen for a decision already taken, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the Commission concluded the meeting in Brussels by saying that "loosening the rules for cabotage would allow hauliers to optimise fleet management and loads".

Change would appear to be coming.

Last reviewed 20 March 2012