The proposal for a regulation amending the existing legislation on the access to the international market for coach and bus services, which the European Commission presented in November 2017, is to further liberalise local and long-distance bus services. This would mean that long-distance bus companies such as Flixbus or Eurolines would obtain fundamental access right to both domestic transport and public infrastructure – above all to bus terminals. A first, controversial debate took place in the Committee on Transport and Tourism of the European Parliament (TRAN) on 1st February 2018, during which members of almost all factions voiced sometimes strong doubts in respect of means and objectives of the proposal.
The Proposal for a regulation of the Commission amending the regulation on the access to the international market by coach and bus services, which had been presented within the scope of the second mobility package “low-emission and competitive mobility”, provides for four significant amendments to the current regulation concerning long-distance passenger transport: 1. fundamental access right of transnational bus companies to bus terminals, which may only by rejected in case of a lack of capacity; 2. establishing a national, impartial (non-ministerial) regulatory body to award public service contracts in the passenger transport market; 3. a separate, fully liberalised approval procedure for international passenger transport over 100km; and 4. the opportunity for foreign companies, to provide their service also in urban areas.
The Commission names the - compared to other transport modes - lacking growth rate of the long-distance bus transport sector, the decrease of the share in bus transport, the “legal patchwork” of national markets, non-attractive travel offers for passengers as well as excessive administration costs and “discriminating practices” at bus terminals as reasons for the necessity of the regulation. Primary objectives include combatting climate change, strengthening and improving the competitiveness of the European industry as well as improving the mobility for citizens.
The members of the TRAN Committee regarded all four main lines of the proposal as problematic. All members of the S&D faction joined in their criticism: the Spanish MEP Ayala Sender, for example declared that an additional market opening was not necessary, as already now companies of all Member States were able to take part in public tenders in another EU country. The Bulgarian S&D MEP Peter Kouroumbashev referred to the existing risk that private companies might push the public sector from those profitable lines, which counter-finance the supply of non-lucrative lines in structurally weak regions. Bus transport already had growth rates and profitable oligopolies. Finally, the new regulation would also bypass the strict rules, which otherwise are used for transport services by foreign companies domestically (so-called Cabotage rules e.g. for HGV transport) – also for the protection of labour rights. Kouroumbashev: “HGV drivers are employees, but bus drivers are not?”
The centre-right parties were also sceptical. As the S&D did, they in particular criticised the alleged disregard of the Principle of subsidiarity and proportionality – one of the most controversial points of the debate. The Spanish EPP shadow rapporteur Luis de Grandes Pascual called the Commission a “bull in the china shop of responsibilities”; referring to the planned regulatory body, he said it would be “impertinent of the Commission to think it could do it better”. According to his prognosis, the regulation would probably land at European Court of Justice. Shadow rapporteur Izaskun Bilbao Barandica (ALDE), also from Spain, asked the rhetorical question: “Only because Germany and France decided to liberalise long-distance transport means that we should do the same?”
The question of cost regarding the public infrastructure of bus terminals, to which long-distance bus companies should be denied access only in case of overloading but not in respect of falling under national environmental criteria, also attracted criticism. Michael Cramer of the German Greens mentioned the completely missing the “user-pays-principle”; “trains pay toll and station charges, but buses don't”, said the MEP.
From the point of view of many MEPs, the commercial logic of long-distance bus companies contradicts the public contract, which they, according to the proposal for a regulation, should also fulfil in agglomerations and domestic lines from 100 km. The tenor: competition only works on lucrative lines, which would weaken the other lines of public and semi-public transport. This would entail the danger of reducing the offer on less profitable lines. Some TRAN MEPs also critically commented the thwarting of own Commission plans in order to open “a new chapter” for a more environmentally friendly and more socially acceptable rail. The liberalisation plans for long-distance bus transport - as, according to the Commission, most environmentally friendly and “most social of all means of transport” - failed to convince the majority of MEPs in the Committee on Transport and Tourism.
The Chamber of Labour too finds it difficult to comprehend the euphoria of the European Commission in view of the alleged positive effects of further liberalisation of international passenger transport. Neither are the specified reasons for the necessity of additional liberalisation accurate, nor will the proposed amendment of the regulation achieve the desired objectives – combatting climate change, strengthening and improving the competitiveness of the European industry, improving the mobility for citizens.