Brussels delivers ambitious blueprint to unify new and old Europe by highway, rail and sea

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The Independent Online

From the Atlantic to the Carpathian mountains, a massive series of engineering schemes is being planned to unite Europe.

High-speed rail connections, a global satellite navigation system and "motorways of the sea" formed the centrepiece of ambitious European Commission proposals announced yesterday by the president, Romano Prodi, at an expected cost of ¤220bn (£155bn).

Four new British projects are included in the plans, which are designed to breathe life into the EU's long-standing ambitions to forge road and rail links across the continent. The Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link from London and the west coast main line have already benefited from funding from the Trans-European Networks, as has the Oresund bridge, which links Sweden and Denmark.

With 10 countries due to join the EU next year, the plan would build and upgrade a host of transport links, opening up the Baltic states, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

Priority projects include a rail route between Paris, Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Vienna and Bratislava. Another route stretching from Lyon to the Ukrainian border, via Venice, Ljubljana in Slovenia and Budapest has also been earmarked while a Lisbon to Madrid high-speed rail link taking in Porto is planned.

Environmentalists attacked plans to link Sicily and mainland Italy with a bridge as a vanity project of Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, which would disrupt wildlife.

But speeding transport links across the continent has been an EU ambition for a decade and the results have been disappointing, with many projects bogged down.

Yesterday, the Commission stressed the need to involve the private sector, while offering to lure investors with cheap loans and the offer of cash up front, equivalent to 30 per cent of some project costs.

The proposals included four new projects involving the UK and Ireland: rail links between Crewe and Holyhead (to be ready in 2008) and Felixstowe and Nuneaton (for 2011), a Hull to Liverpool road and rail corridor (for 2015), and a similar scheme linking Belfast and Dublin by 2010.

Loyola de Palacio, the EU transport commissioner, said that transport links were "a motor for Europe's economic development". Britain is likely to welcome the package as a good basis for negotiation, although it is wary of some details. But the unresolved problem is one of funding. The Commission has yet to get governments to agree on the spending plans. A commitment by the European Investment Bank to make a further ¤50bn available for financing by the end of the decade was welcomed by experts as evidence that the Trans-European Networks could get off the ground.

The Commission believes that the EU should budget for ¤220bn of projects by 2020, ¤80bn of which would be spent by 2006 on existing projects. It expects about 20 per cent of the cash to come from the private sector with the rest provided by national governments or from cash put aside by the EU for poorer regions in the bloc.

Since the initiative began in Essen in 1994 several schemes have been held up by financing wrangles. Yesterday, Ms de Palacio warned that some projects could be stripped of their "top priority" status.

Britain felt badly done by when it failed to get some of its big projects classified as priorities under the previous Trans-European Transport Network scheme, and therefore eligible for EU cash.

But Mark Watts, a Labour member of the European Parliament's transport committee, said: "We are delighted that the Commission is backing UK transport priorities, and this is something of a humiliating climbdown for Ms de Palacio."