BRUSSELS - Siim Kallas, the European Commission vice president who in mid-March cut short the creation of a new Estonian government and flew back to Brussels, used a speech at the EU Transport Business Summit 2014 to demand more market freedom in his sector of the economy.
Mr Kallas, who will probably continue as EU transport commissioner until expiry of his term this fall, last Thursday addressed a company of European transport group chiefs and officials in Brussels. Listing the trouble spots of various means of transportation, he noted that the basic trouble is working against market rules, in the entire sector – both by member states and representatives of the transport sector.
“I see in Europe too many standpoints that consider the market economy a problem, not a solution,” said Mr Kallas. "It is looked at with suspicion, at times with outright hostility.”
In his opinion, ignoring market rules is dangerous, causing growth of unemployment and loss of competitiveness as compared to other regions of the world.
Asked if he wanted his 5-year work as transport commissioner to be remembered as a time when liberalisation ideology was enforced, Mr Kallas answered that his proposals were of the pragmatic kind.
“Naturally, I believe in market economy and private business,” he noted.
"But my activities are not carried by ideology alone. Even in the European Parliament there are people who say they are always against my plans to liberalise. What kind of liberalisation is that, if I want railways to function over borders and over all of Europe?”
In his speech at the conference, Mr Kallas sharply criticised the current situation with the single railway area of Europe; among other things, he pointed to huge subsidies paid by taxpayer money to regional railway lines.
“For me, the basic choice with railways is clear. Either we will have more cross-border business-based railway transport all across Europe, or our railways simply cease to be a serious alternative to highway and air transportation. That would mean irreversible backsliding into the kind of Europe where railways are a luxury toy for some single rich countries, but for the majority they will be too expensive due to lack of public funds.”
Pulling down barriers between current European railway connections has been an issue targeted by this European Commission; even so, a number of problems persist. In one of the panels at the conference, the Austrian federal railway (BB) chief Christian Kern jokingly related an example where a train is bound from Austria to Hungary and, at the border, will have to replace its rectangular tail lights for round ones.
The call to bring more market economy into the transport sector was also echoed by the main speaker, former Italian prime minister Mario Monti. In his speech, Mr Monty admitted that he had listened carefully to what Mr Kallas had to say about it.
“I fully share your view, as we all live in a place which, a few years ago, used to be called single market,” said Mr Monti.
“The European integration process is built on the notion of a market. Sure, it’s a market, not a jungle – but without the European Union it could be a jungle, and doubtless the integration would then be a lot weaker. In that case, a fragmented European market would be in the hands of monopolies and oligarchs, in which both consumers and smaller companies would suffer.”
In the near future, the European Commission itself will be promoting transparency of the European transport market by publishing the EU Transport Scoreboard, featuring all member states.
The mobility and transport directorate under the domain of Mr Kallas will set member states in a table according to transport conditions and development, based on development of infrastructure, prevention of accidents, and the amount of infringement proceedings.
The aggregate table is still being compiled; in the preliminary version, Estonia is among the EU’s worst when it comes to air transport infrastructure while its railway and highway infrastructures rank as average. These, however, are but snippets of the big picture.