Scrutiny of EU Legislative Proposals

We will now continue our consideration of EU legislative proposal COM (2011) 650 on Union guidelines for the development of the trans-European transport network. When we made our initial assessment of this draft measure, we agreed that the significant proposal warranted further consideration, especially in respect of concerns raised which may be relevant to the principal of subsidiarity.

I welcome Mr. Michael Harper, principal officer and transport counsellor in the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, Caoimhín Ó Ciaruain Úasail, assistant principal officer, and Mr. Michael Morrissey, higher executive officer in the EU co-ordination and Presidency preparations unit in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and thank them for their attendance. I draw their attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise them that the opening statements they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee’s website after this meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Mr. Harper to address the committee.

Mr. Michael Harper

I thank the Chairman and the committee for this chance to speak to it about the TEN-T dossier, which is an important one. It will loom large on the transport agenda for the next 18 months or so and will probably feature on the agenda for the Irish Presidency. I will go through the background, the implications for Ireland, our position so far and where we are at in negotiations in Council.

In October, the Commission published two major proposals on the development of trans-European networks. The first is the regulation defining the framework for the TEN-T over the next 40 years to 2050 and the second is, essentially, the financial instrument that is being put in place to support it and which is called the Connecting Europe Facility. While we are talking today mainly about the TEN-T proposal, the two proposals are very much interlinked and they will be the core of instruments in shaping European transport policy over the medium to longer term. Basically, they are based on the vision that was set out in the Commission White Paper on transport on which I understand the committee got an information note already.

On the TEN-T specifically, the Commission proposal is for a strategic framework to co-ordinate investment decisions on European transport infrastructure networks which will improve the connectivity of these networks. This will then replace the existing framework on TEN-T which is much less specific than the proposal now before us.

One of the key differences between the existing TEN-T framework and the new one is that the new one consists of two layers, namely, a core network which is to be completed by 2030 and a comprehensive network feeding into it which will be completed by 2050. There are maps attached to the proposal which specify all of these links and notes. The comprehensive network is intended to ensure extensive connectivity and coverage and to link in to the core network. Both networks will cover all modes - road, rail, air, inland waterways and ports.

The implementation of the core network in particular is to be managed using a so-called corridor approach. This identifies ten corridors, one of which covers Ireland. They all cover at least three modes, three member states and two cross-border sections.

European co-ordinators to be appointed by the Commission will chair corridor platforms - essentially, committees - which will bring together the stakeholders, including the member states, operators, etc., to design and deliver the various elements of the corridor. These corridor platforms are effectively a management structure for the Commission to oversee the delivery of the core network in the member states.

On the implications for Ireland, 40% of our exports go to the European Union. Most of these exports are transported primarily on transport networks other than our own. It is in our interest, therefore, to have effective and efficient transport infrastructure networks. Unfortunately, the proposal has a price attached to it and in Ireland's case it is a very high one which is, in the main, unnecessary, in particular, in respect of railways.

The Commission estimates that investment of €250 billion will be needed to deliver the key upgrades envisaged for the core network. As matters stand, it is envisaged that the connecting Europe facility, CEF, will provide €21 billion over the period until 2020, with an additional €10 billion to be provided from the Cohesion Funds. The latter will not be available to Ireland. The balance of the investment - more than 90% - will fall to member states. Given our current financial position, this is not a runner in Ireland's case.

If the money were provided, it would be a runner.

Mr. Michael Harper

I will address that point in a moment.

The level of specification envisaged for the core and comprehensive networks is disproportionate to the level of flows across the network, particularly to our isolated network. This is especially true of rail. The European Commission's objective of improving connectivity and establishing a joined up European rail network is laudable. However, irrespective of what it does, the Irish network will never be joined up to that of the rest of Europe. What is sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander in this case. I will cite two examples. The proposal will require full electrification which is fine, for understandable reasons, from the point of view of the Commission and continental Europe. However, only a tiny proportion of Ireland's track is electrified. Even when we had money under the Transport 21 programme, the only electrification envisaged was between Malahide and Balbriggan to extend the DART. No other electrification has ever been planned on the mainline rail network simply because it is not justified by the nature of the network. Full electrification would cost an estimated €3 billion and the goals of higher speed, greater efficiency and capacity would still not be achieved without further very significant investment in track, the elimination of level crossings, which is difficult and expensive, and other safety upgrades.

The second example refers to roads. The proposal would require Ireland to provide rest stops and secure truck parks every 30 miles. This measure cannot be justified economically or commercially. We have some experience in establishing rest stops and rest areas on motorways and it is not always a straightforward commercial proposition. The proposal would require us to go much further than is necessary. Journeys in this country are usually of less than four and a half hours' duration and stops are not always required. In many cases, drivers have disembarked following a ferry crossing of eight or nine hours and will therefore have had a rest.

We also have serious concerns about the governance structures set out in the proposal which will have the Commission oversee the delivery of the corridors in question. We should avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on member states and commercial operators. Under the existing guidelines, we have completed a number of cross-Border transport infrastructure projects on time and within budget. Given that North-South co-operation in this area is very good, we do not see a need to add a further layer of unspecified Commission regulation and thereby increase the level of administrative burden.

We fully support co-ordinated development of trans-European networks and, where necessary, action at European level, particularly for cross-border sections of the transport networks. However, the top down approach being adopted is excessive, a view that is shared by a number of other member states. The Council, specifically its legal service, has been asked for a written opinion, which it has not yet given, on Article 172 of the Treaty on European Union, which effectively states that a member state must agree to any project of common interest to be located on its territory. In other words, if we do not agree to a project, it will not proceed. The Commission proposal, which is couched as a regulation and has high levels of requirements, does not state what will happen where countries do not meet its requirements. However, having sought informal legal advice on the matter, I am informed that a country which does not meet the requirements of a regulation will be taken to court and a fine or other penalty will be imposed.

We are asking that a more nuanced approach be taken to the drafting of the regulation to take account of the differences between member states, for example, different types of infrastructure. Ireland, for instance, has a unique rail gauge. Other member states share our concerns or have different concerns about the proposal. The primary concerns relate to the level of cost involved, the legal obligation to deliver the proposed measures by certain dates and the fact that the proposal pre-empts decisions by member state governments about what they should spend their money on ten years before the event and, as a result, ties the hands of governments that have not yet been elected.

At this stage, we have still to reach a common position in the Council. However, it is likely that the common position, when reached, will be much different from the text proposed by the Commission. We are reasonably confident that our concerns are gaining some traction with the Council and Commission. We have had frequent discussions with the Commission bilaterally and in meetings about our particular issues and officials are well aware of them. A representative of the Commission will travel to Ireland later this month to see for himself what our transport systems are like. We believe we will secure a better deal than that which is on the table. We would be pleased to return to the joint committee to report on further developments as and when they take place. While I have tried to cover everything, it is not possible to do so. I will be pleased to answer any questions members may have.

I thank Mr. Harper. The relevant clerk provided members with a substantial briefing on this issue before the Christmas recess. In addition, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, discussed the TEN-T proposal when he appeared before the joint committee in December.

I will put a number of questions to Mr. Harper before asking members to contribute. What allies have we found for our position in the European Union? Do they include Britain, an island nation, albeit one with a rail link to continental Europe, which has peripheral regions such as Wales and Scotland? What progress has been made in the debate on this issue? Has the process of engagement commenced or is this issue peripheral in the wider debate? The paper circulated by Mr. Harper states that the position Ireland has taken in negotiations at technical and political level appears to be enjoying growing support among other member states. Our position is that there is a clear case for a calibrated approach to the implementation of the regulation which takes account of the specific nature of member states' transport infrastructure and specific traffic volumes in more peripheral parts of the network. What progress is being made in respect of Ireland's position? To return to my first question, do we have allies who share our views?

Mr. Michael Harper

I will take the Chairman's questions in sequence. We have allies, in particular but not confined to the United Kingdom which has similar concerns to us. Britain also has a unique rail gauge, its railway is largely unelectrified and it does not have plans to electrify most of it. I understand, for example, that none of the rail network in Scotland, which is larger than the Irish rail network, is electrified.

At the next policy level up, none of the member states has spoken in favour of the compulsion being applied to them. Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Ireland and others do not like it.

In that case, it will be implemented.

Mr. Michael Harper

As I stated, the general approach or whatever common position the Council arrives at in March or June will have to be much more to the liking of the member states because the member states must agree it. Once a common position has been adopted, a dogfight will ensue with the European Parliament and in 18 months or thereabouts a conciliation procedure, as it is known, will commence. This is a treaty based process which sets out the steps to be taken and a deadline for concluding the procedure. If an agreement is not reached, and the agreement of member states is required, the entire process collapses. Unfortunately, this process is likely to take place on our watch as it will probably coincide with the Irish Presidency. For this reason, we will have an interest in securing an agreement and achieving a success. However, we will not be interested in securing an agreement that is anything like that which the Commission has proposed.

On progress made to date, the European Parliament appointed a rapporteur, Mr. Georgios Koumoutsakos, MEP, from the European People's Party, in December. It has not yet started on its part of the process, however, and progress is slow. The Council was pushed hard by the Polish Presidency to reach what it called a partial general approach, which could also be described as a bit of agreement. The document on which it based its efforts was unsatisfactory from our point of view. It was better than the Commission's proposal but as it was still not sufficient for us we said, "No thank you, we will just have a progress report." That position was also taken by every other member state. The member states are not in a hurry to rush this through. A considerable number of details issued will have to be addressed and much more discussion is needed. Anonymous officials in Brussels will be holding meetings for a long time to come before the proposal reaches the political level.

The Danish Presidency has taken up the reins on the matter and it has great hopes of achieving agreement in Council in March. We do not think that will happen, however. It might agree something in June if it is able to craft proposals which the Germans are able to swallow. If the Germans and the French do not like it, nobody else will be obliged to accept it.

I thank the officials for their comprehensive presentation. The biggest issue posed for the State is the potential cost. That it is a non-runner in the current environment should not deter us from developing a vision for future transport links across Europe. Even though it appears farcical at present, there is merit in co-ordinating transport networks across Europe. However, Ireland, Britain and other island nations would have to be treated differently from the central hub of Europe, where it is possible to travel between countries without noticing borders. That is the vision for the European Union in terms of transporting goods and people. The issue of capital obviously does not arise in the crossing of borders by road. Ireland would have to be treated differently because one cannot travel by train from here to the rest of Europe.

We should consider the electrification of our rail network for environmental reasons rather than for the objective of developing a European transport network. Something can be identified in terms of design standards but we must build step by step rather than change over in one fell swoop. I am not sure this would breach the principle of subsidiarity given that we are an island nation. I understand why a country in the middle of two others would want to achieve a common standard but the principle of subsidiarity might not arise in respect of Ireland and Britain, depending on whether Scotland becomes an independent state at some point.

In regard to proportionality and costs, it is not a proportionate response to a requirement to build that network when the cost implications are considered.

In regard to rest stops, I acknowledge the economic issues that arise but, domestically, we have to decide the design standards we require. We have come to understand that rest stops should be singing and dancing purpose-built facilities with a set array of services. From a road safety point of view, however, there is a greater requirement for basic services, whether in terms of road stops or refreshments.

The officials are taking the correct approach to this document from a cost perspective. The clerk to the committee has experience of these issues from his work on the Joint Committee on European Affairs. The Lisbon treaty allows parliaments to discuss issues of this nature and we will pursue them at a later stage in that context.

The song, "If I Were a Rich Man", comes to mind. I do not disagree on the value of taking a long-term strategic approach to these matters, given that we are a major exporter and require access to these networks in other countries. We should express a view on the mainland European dimension as well as on our own needs.

It was only when the issue of electrification was seriously considered for the Maynooth and Kildare lines that thought was given to the implications. The considerable work that would be required, for example to adapt small bridges for cabling, would be highly disruptive and expensive. There are approximately 11 bridges on the Kildare line. If there is insufficient money to surface roads, it is difficult to justify expenditure to raise bridges on a system that, because of settlement patterns, does not carry a large volume of passengers. This is not typical of many mainland European countries with large populations. It is only when one stands on a platform in France and Italy and watches goods trains with 50 cars pass by that one realises the value of such a system.

As I frequently take trains in mainland Europe, I have encountered difficulties in crossing borders and differences in prices between, for example, France, Spain and Italy, which heavily subsidise their rail networks, and Britain, where train tickets are expensive. I recognise the value of taking a common approach but ownership issues arise in terms of the investments. The solution will not be straightforward and subsidiarity must be considered where the European Court of Justice may be investigating commitments that we have not delivered on.

At the same time, however, we have to consider the longer term given that we are approaching peak oil production, if we are not at that point already. The way we move people and goods will change dramatically in the future. We need to protect our position in terms of the financial implications that could ensue.

To bring things to a conclusion, I will outline a number of options that are before the committee. As Deputy Dooley indicated, this is a new responsibility for committees such as ours. Even though it is late in the evening, there are a few of us here. This is probably the most serious issue we will discuss this week because we will get to make a decision on it.

The first option is that we can propose that the policy clerk draft a brief contribution to be sent to the European Parliament and Commission outlining the concerns we have expressed here today, which are genuine. People are generally favourable towards the overall idea of integration, but there are particular concerns for us as an island nation. The committee also has the option of recommending to both Houses a reasoned opinion on the principle of subsidiarity. Our concerns are of a general nature and, therefore, what I propose is that we issue a contribution to the European Parliament and Commission and Ireland's MEPs on this matter. If we were to go further than that we would be raising a flag and the two Houses would have to pass our proposal, but I do not know whether we are at that point. There are serious concerns but, based on Mr. Harper's progress report, we do have allies; it is not as though we are totally on our own and need to put up a flag at this moment. I propose that we issue that contribution to the Commission, with the committee's permission. Is that agreed?

I have no problem with that in principle but there has been quite a bit of discussion of this issue at previous European committees, and we also discussed it before in the context of EU scrutiny. We were always trying to find ways of building alliances at parliamentary level. While we do not want to do anything that will hinder what Mr. Harper is doing, if we can build some kind of alliance among national parliaments through the process that exists, it can only be helpful in terms of bringing this issue to the attention of national parliaments. Whether it is done through COSAC or through the forum as set out in the Lisbon treaty, it might be worth looking at.

Perhaps we could get some advice from the clerk for our next meeting so that we can consider the options, of which there are quite a number. It might help with something we have been trying to do for a while, which is to bring the European debate as it relates to the sectoral committees back to the sectoral committees, rather than having issues dealt with separately through the scrutiny committee, as was the case in the past. This is an ideal solution. Having sat on previous European affairs and scrutiny committees, and having for a long time encouraged the sending of this type of material back to the sectoral committees, we have now achieved this, and there is an opportunity for us to use the network of European national parliaments to generate a debate and build our alliances. That can only help Mr. Harper in his work.

Listening to Deputy Dooley, I had an analogy in my head. It is similar to sitting in a train carriage and being tempted to press the emergency stop button.

It never crossed my mind, Chairman. If that is the case, you are spending too much time on the train. You need the fast train.

While we would all like to flag something, I do not want to overstate the situation. I ask the clerk to do the briefing exercise. The document must be sent by 1 February, and we can consider other options that are on the table as well at that stage. We will not yank the chain yet, if that is all right with Deputy Dooley.

Will we discuss this again?

Yes, it will come back to us. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank Mr. Harper, Mr. Ó Ciaruain and Mr. Morrissey for assisting us in our deliberations today. They are excused. At our meeting tomorrow we will meet the chairman designate of the Dublin Airport Authority.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 January 2012.