Recently, we have gotten used to the EU splitting in (in the very least) two groups when it comes to controversial topics, and most often the two opposing sides are comprised of the Eastern and Western countries in the political bloc.
The reason for this is that, in economic terms, those two heterogeneous parts of the EU often have competing interests, but one of them has significantly more political clout than the other, and as a result it has the ability to turn its own economic interests in official policy of the entire union.
The discussions surrounding the “mobility package”, the final vote on which for the current composition of the European Parliament passes recently, are no exception to this rule; here, let us discuss several details around these discussions, which merit some digging in.
The Apple of Discord
We cannot discuss the debate and relations within the EU without first acquainting ourselves with the details of the matter that was the reason for the most recent clashes between Easter and Western Europe.
Broadly speaking, the most problematic terms concern cabotage transport (such transport services where a transport company provides services outside of its country of registration), as the mobility package provides for a 3-day restriction for them, with trucks afterwards obliged to spend at least 60 hours in the country, where their owner company is registered. This aims to prevent turning this type of services in the primary activity of transport companies, particularly Eastern European ones.
The requirement that transportation companies carry out a “significant” part of their activities in the countries, where they are registered has the same goal.
Other key changes of the legislative package include the working conditions of drivers, particularly a compulsory requirement for drives to return home frequently – at least once every four weeks – as well as application of the posted workers rules to cabotage and cross-border operation and provision of more resting areas for drivers.
Those opposing the “mobility package” the most among members of the European parliament have been those from Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland, but their position on the topic is shared by most of their Eastern European colleges. Most often, all of them are not against the requirements aiming at improving the conditions of drivers.
They, however, claim that their countries’ transportation sector will be severely hurt by the new cabotage rules and restrictions for freight transport, and that those rules affect disproportionally the newer EU members, as well as those with are more geographically remote from Western Europe, where most cargo is headed.
Free Movement of Goods and Services?
When we analyze the new regulations on mobility, it is necessary to put them in their broader context; namely the push by the administration of French President Emanuel Macron to redefine some of the cornerstone principles in the EU aiming to dampen competition and counter the so-called “social dumping” that Eastern European workers cause on the Western Europe labor market.
Against the backdrop of a wider call for stricter regulation, restrictions and regimentation, the introduction of new, more restrictive rules for the movement of goods seems more than natural.
The rhetoric employed by the supporters of the mobility package is focused primarily on the improvement of the wages of Eastern European drivers and the improvement of their working conditions, but carefully leaves out their negative consequences.
Currently, the occupation of the international truck driver is one of the few (especially in Bulgaria) which allows workers with relatively low qualifications to bring home wages far above the country average. Truly, the legislative changes introduced in the “mobility package” will likely lead to improvements in both working conditions and pay of the drivers, but only for those who manage to keep their jobs as international drivers.
The most likely effect of the proposed changes, however, is for most Eastern European transportation companies simply to give up their activities in Western Europe, and to lay of many of their employees as a result.
As a consequence, few of the current drivers will benefit from the new, better wages and working conditions.
There is also a reason to believe that the new mobility regulations contradict some of the most basic principles of the EU. Against the backdrop of political clashes, regulation and the discussion of tax harmonization it seems that the fact that the EU was created and based on the freedom of movement of people, goods, services, and capital is almost forgotten.
The strict definition where the infringement of this freedom begins is, however, a difficult task – white the introduction of customs duties within the EU will obviously constitute an infringement, the imposition of impossible requirements for the activities of transportation companies, which in practice conduct the transportation of goods can also be considered one.
In this sense, all that is left is to establish whether the regulations that are currently under discussion, constitute such impossible requirements.
Judging from the opinions of both the representatives of the transportation business and the Eastern European members of the EU parliament, they are.
The debate surrounding the mobility package also lead to a wider conclusion regarding the direction that European politics has taken in the past few years.
The West, united under the French banner of tax harmonization, hampering competition, centralization, and larger welfare state, more and more frequently imposes on newer member states measures and requirements, which cast doubt on the motivation, which drove Eastern Europe to join the political bloc in the first place.
This, in turn, provides ammunition to the anti-European populists which are on the rise in the past years, and deepens the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, whose interests will likely diverge more and more in the future.
The fate of the “mobility package” is, however, far from sealed – the final decision on it will be taken not by the current, but the next composition of the European parliament, which may turn out to be more welcoming towards competition and less willing to deepen the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.