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Europe

Roadwork Ahead for the European Union

Six months before enlargement, only one fifth of the ambitious Europe-wide infrastructure plans called for in Maastricht Treaty have been finished. The slow progress means an expanded EU could get stuck in a traffic jam.

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Increased traffic could slow Europe's highways to a crawl.

Time and money are running out to put the finishing touches on an improved Europe-wide transportation network -- including roads, rail, ships, and planes. The project’s success remains vital to the creation of an economically viable and a culturally cohesive EU -- whose industry enjoys the efficient transport of goods and services and whose citizens enjoy a feeling of interconnection, helping to diminish physical and psychological boundaries.

Yet just six months before the official entry of ten new countries into the European Union -- scheduled to take place on May 1, 2004 -- only one fifth of the work has been completed. And the EU is in danger of experiencing what an official white paper on transport policy released by the EU in 2001 described as, “apoplexy at the center and paralysis at the extremities.” At the current rate, reaching the goals prescribed in Maastricht could drag on until 2030.

In the debate leading up to EU enlargement, it became clear that infrastructure was going to pose a challenge. Along with enlargement would come a significant increase in cross-border transportation, both for trade and leisure purposes. In fact, experts believe cross border traffic could increase by as much as 200 percent in the next ten years.

That’s quite a load for an already over-stressed system. Of the existing EU road network, 7,500 kilometers (one-tenth), are clogged by traffic on any given day. The situation is only going to get worse if the expert’s predictions are correct.

Slow progress threatens economic livelihood

The European Commission recognized the impending crisis, and has been working since the early 1990s to address the problem, attempting to weave a trans-European network consisting of ten so-called “corridors,” for example, a 445-kilometer road-rail link between Helsinki and Kaliningrad via Tallinn and Warsaw. It was hoped all of the work would be wrapped up by 2010.

Karel van Miert, a former EU Commissioner and the director of the EU working group “Trans-European Transport Network” (TEN-T), was charged with the task of checking over all of the European infrastructure projects currently in progress and those scheduled to begin, reassessing them based on how urgent they are and whether or not they can be financed. The completion of the “corridor” concept, as proposed, for example, would require €100 billion ($117 billion) in funds, while Brussels only makes €500 million available every year.

In a report submitted by the working group TEN-T in June of 2003, Van Miert and his collegues set priorities, stating that an investment of €500 billion was necessary if the EU was to be fully competitive and efficient. What’s more, the report pointed to key priorities, including a high-speed train eastward and an Eastern European combined transport train. More than projects are on the high priority list, with a revised date of completion now 2020.

Setting priorities and uneven progress

Given the limited finances, experts tend to part ways when it comes to setting priorities. Tensions persist over whether to invest more in roads versus rail, and it would seem that roads have thus far won out, with the number of kilometers of highways more than tripled from 16,000 to 53,000 kilometers.

Uneven progress also remains a problem. Germany, already rife with experience linking east and west following re-unification, hired a consultant, the Van-Miert Group, to help them hold up their end of the bargain. “We belong to those who contributed right from the start," said Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe. “And compared to others, German is relatively far along.”

Elsewhere, that has not been the case. Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of Deutsche Bahn, is not happy with the situation. “I am mainly critical of the fact that on the other side of the border not enough is being done,” Mehdorn told Deutsche Welle. “It won’t get us anywhere if we’re the only ones doing something -- something has to be done in Eastern Europe as well.”

Those to the east would say that they are trying, but lack the funds available in western countries and need the support of the European Union. “Of course, we could pay for the improvements ourselves, but that would take much longer,” said Eva Kramer, the Hungarian transportation minister. “It has been a huge help that we have received half of our funding from the European Cohesion Fund.”

Ambitious plans drawn up ten years ago are now meeting with the reality of changed circumstances. Europe may enlarge in 2004, but it could take a few more years to achieve the envisioned “trans-Europe network.”

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