As I depart for Brussels to learn more about EU transport policy, here are some snippets of my contribution to the recent Transport Committee meeting on the subject.
The uncorrected transcript can be found here. I have corrected my remarks in the few places necessary.
On the Single European Rail Area and EU transport policy as a failure:
Q88 Steve Baker: Turning to the Single European Railway Area, it seems to me that technically that requires harmonisation of track gauges right across Europe. Is high-speed rail and the high-speed rail network [intended] to do that?
Mrs Villiers: I don’t think the Single European Railway Area would necessarily require further gauge harmonisation. Our decisions on HS2 and high-speed rail are not taken with a view to gauge harmonisation in Europe. I don’t see that the two issues are connected. Our decisions on high-speed rail are based on the factors we have discussed in this room-the economic benefits we believe it will deliver, particularly in relation to addressing the prosperity gap and the growth gap between north and south in this country.
Q89 Steve Baker: If I recall, you said Deutsche Bahn will run services on to High Speed 1.
Mrs Villiers: Yes.
Q90 Steve Baker: So, presumably, they would have a commercial wish to run high-speed services on to Birmingham and, say, link Frankfurt and Birmingham on the high-speed network. Would that not be [ideal]?
Mrs Villiers: That may well be something that they would want to do. That will be a commercial decision for them.
Q91 Steve Baker: That would create that Single European Rail Area, with gauges harmonised right the way across Europe and services running in a beautifully integrated way at high speed from one European country to another. Is that right?
Mrs Villiers: Obviously when one is talking about high-speed services, yes, there is compatibility between gauges, but that is a different issue from looking at consistency of gauge right across the European Union, which would obviously be a much bigger project.
Q92 Steve Baker: The first railway package, as I understand it, was intended to create that Single European Rail Area. Would you characterise it as a failure?
Mrs Villiers: It certainly hasn’t delivered because it hasn’t been properly enforced yet. So far as I am aware, it has generated some benefit but it has not delivered all of the benefits which were promised.
Q93 Steve Baker: Bearing in mind both that package and Galileo, would you think it is fair to say that European transport policy manufactures expensive white elephants?
Mrs Villiers: I think I have set out my position on Galileo. I am anxious about the amount of money that has been spent on it. I am very concerned that the Commission is asking for more money. I do think it is vitally important that we retain the current limits on the budget but instead the Commission de-scope the project so that it delivers benefits for the public across the EU without demanding further additions from the European taxpayer. So I would not characterise it in the way you have, but I do acknowledge that there are significant concerns about the way the project is working.
On the futility of resistance:
Q108 Steve Baker: If we were to resist the EU’s plans for the Eurovignette and we found that the plans included aspects that the Government just did not wish to accept, would there be any point resisting or would we be compelled to adopt them anyway?
Mrs Villiers: My understanding is that it is a qualified majority issue. Conceivably we could be outvoted, but my understanding is that there’s no proposal on the table to mandate any kind of charging scheme and, if there was, we would resist it.
Q109 Steve Baker: But it sounds like resistance is futile.
Mrs Villiers: Not necessarily. A lot of people’s anxiety about the Commission’s involvement in infrastructure charging is whether this would be used as a stalking horse to try and give the EU a stream of revenue to get them involved in a kind of taxation. That is something we would resist very strongly and that is one of the reasons why we have resisted any attempt to hypothecate these revenues, in case that was seen as a step on the way to hypothecating revenues to the European Commission. I can’t say anything more clearly than we are not going to accept something that would mandate road charging. We think that is a decision that should be made in this country.
Steve Baker: Super. It sounds like we can look forward to an in/out referendum.
Relevant video can be found here; I start speaking at 1 hour 8 minutes and 30 seconds.