Kinnock steers EU off a road to nowhere

European gridlock: The Transport Commissioner wants new links, but protesters fear environmental disaster
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The Independent Online


Driving back to Brussels at the New Year, Neil Kinnock got off Le Shuttle at Calais and sped up the E40 motorway. Along with every other truck and car using this prime European corridor, the EU Transport Commissioner was forced to turn off the motorway at Veurnes, and proceed along a 10km (6-mile) rat-run towards a bottleneck in the village of Adenkirke, on the Franco-Belgian border. In a line of vehicles thundering up to Rotterdam, he slowed down to pass the border, where the French still do spot checks.

The creator of Europe's "citizens' network" must have despaired as he observed the glass rattle in the window of the corner boulangerie. All along this choked track, fumes foul the sea breeze, scattering pintail ducks across the ancient dunes. Just a short drive from Brussels, Mr Kinnock was snarled in European gridlock.

Tomorrow he unveils his European "citizens' network" scheme as part of a transport plan which was first outlined in the Maastricht treaty. The scheme envisages some 15,000km of roads, which will complete a 58,000km network. There are plans for 70,000km of railway track, including 22,000 km for high-speed trains. There will be transport corridors, new inland waterways and 267 airports "of common interest". The single market and the free movement of people demands integrated networks, said the treaty.

For now, however, the plan is just a dream. All over Europe, motorways often end at frontiers and railway lines and signalling systems do not match.

The story of the missing kilometres on the E40 artery illustrates the problem. The motorway is a priority project. One of the so-called "Tens", or trans-European networks, the road is intended to link Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels to Calais, the Channel tunnel and London. While much of the link is in place, the Belgians have been reluctant to spend the money to complete it, largely because, whatever the benefit for "Europe", there has been no perceived benefit for Belgium.

Already the country is questioning the value of its own national network of motorways. Partly as a result of chaotic de-centralised planning, the country has a higher proportion of roads than anywhere in Europe, with four kilometres of road for every square kilometre of land. The federal system means each town and region competes to have its own major road links, with little thought for the general interest. Belgian environmentalists have been swift to learn the lessons, questioning the economic benefits of the myriad of major routes which carve up countryside, benefiting only the big cities.

The fear is that European network could have the same effect on a bigger scale. Belgium is lodged between the big powers of France and Germany, with Britain just across the water. This small state fears it would just become a transit area, criss- crossed by motorways and railways serving Europe's bigger powers.

"Belgium thinks it will become a distribution centre for Europe," said Gijs Kuneman, director of the European Federation for Transport and the Environment.

Local interests also lobbied against the E40 link: the port of Zeebrugge feared that it would lose traffic to the French ports in the south. The missing link passes through the Flemish part of Belgium, causing further complications. The Flemish transport body feared that the link could benefit rival French-speaking Wallonia to the south. The Belgian nature lobby warned about the effect the road would have on a nearby seal colony and on the rare ducks which inhabit the dunes, untouched since the 14th century. A 17th-century Flemish farm, intended as a museum, was also threatened.

According to the Flemish transport ministry, the problems have now been overcome and the road will be completed next year. In the end there will be no choice but to build the link, because the Channel tunnel is a "fact on the ground" and the increased traffic flow has come about anyway, creating pollution and danger on the small Flemish country roads.

The building of Europe's transport network will see many more such battles. Lobbyists are preparing to block the building of a new stretch of road from Veurnes to Ypres, which would take trucks thundering past First World War cemeteries.

Europe's environmental lobby is also flexing its muscles. A powerful alliance of groups is monitoring Mr Kinnock's plans. Greenpeace says carbon dioxide emissions would increase by 18 per cent if all the Tens roads were built. Friends of the Earth says people should stay at home. Newbury- style protests have not yet begun on the Continent, but a European action day against road-building, planned for March, could signal the start.

Furthermore, the entire Tens project has run into the buffers of the European Parliament. Angry that it was not consulted on the routes, the Parliament has blocked agreement by calling for 284 amendments to the Commission plan.

Although the 14 priority projects are largely rail, there are too many roads in the wider network, say MEPs. Because national governments were invited to submit proposals for new links when the network was first devised, every local authority in Europe tried to promote its pet road, in the hope of getting European or private funds. The result, say critics, is that there is little "European" in the plan.

The Commission, meanwhile, is powerless to push its project forward. It has no power to intervene in local planning problems, and no money to pay for the multi-billion pound projects. Apart from a 1.8bn ecu (pounds 1.5bn) Commission budget for feasibility studies, national governments must fund the schemes.

So far they have refused unless the immediate benefit to them is obvious. The Commission is particularly angry that the Germans refuse to help fund the most ambitious project of all, a 54km rail-road tunnel under the Alps linking north and south Europe. Clearly, European gridlock is not going to be broken fast.