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‘If you reinstate the rules in 2023 it will be impossible for some states to spend the funds’ Marques MEP

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EU Reporter spoke to Margarida Marques MEP (S&D, PT) the European Parliament’s  rapporteur on the Review of the European Economic Governance Framework.

Marques was one of the speakers at a series of debates on ‘Fiscal Matters’, which brings together social, environmental, civil society, experts and politicians to share their views on what changes were needed to the current economic framework.

EU Reporter: You are the rapporteur for the Parliament’s own-initiative report on the review of the economic governance launched in early 2020 and then stalled because of the COVID crisis. What have we learned about economic governance from the pandemic?

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MM: I think that the main element, to answer your question, is that the European Commission decided to activate the general escape clause during the pandemic, because it was clear that member states couldn't survive with the current rules. But as you point out, the Commission had already started the debate in February 2020. It was clear, even before the pandemic, that the rules were not responding to economic and social demands, and they are also very, very complex. It’s difficult for citizens, even politicians, to understand the rules. It’s not just because of the pandemic, but it has put the rules on the table.

ER: Now that we are hopefully emerging from the pandemic, would you like to see the general escape clause extended? And if so, for how long? And maybe if you could say something about the other instruments that have been introduced, including joint bond issuance, that's meant to be a temporary contribution. Would you like to see that being used in the future?

MM: Yes, the general escape clause will be activated until the end of 2022, but it’s clear that it's impossible to return to the rules exactly as they exist today. First of all, the first problem is that now we have new instruments and the European Union decided to create innovative instruments like SURE, that is supporting jobs in member states, and the Next Generation EU to support European Economic Recovery. 

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Member states have to spend these funds by the end of 2026. If you reinstate the rules on 1 January 2023 it will be impossible for some states to spend the funds. So the best scenario is that the general escape clause will be deactivated when new rules are introduced, that there is a transition phase. I am very pragmatic, we need to have a transition phase before the new rules, I know very well how complex and how much time decisions take to be made. 

ER: You have a Social Democrat led government in Portugal.Are you pleased that Germany is now likely to have an SPD-led coalition? 

MM: The parliament could adopt my own-initiative report, at plenary. It enjoys broad support. We have the right wing parties voting in favour, the Socialist group are in favour. We started with different positions, but we found common positions. I'm very happy because it was adopted with a large majority and it’s an ambitious report. This is important because this is the position of the European Parliament. When the European Commission reopens the public debate on the revision of the fiscal rules, it will be supported by the European Parliament. 

I'm very conscientious that it's not easy to find consensus in the Council of Ministers. The position of Scholz in the campaign was that there was no need to change the rules, we can use all the existing flexibility. From my point of view this is not enough because at the end of the day, we need rules that reduce complexity,  the current rules are not transparent and they are not democratic enough. 

Flexibility is very important. For example, it was very important for the situation in Portugal in 2015-2016, the socialist government could achieve their goals on social rights, on pensions and on salaries, because we used all the flexibility as the European Commission was open to use this flexibility. However, it means if the Commission had not been open to this flexibility, interest rates would have increased. 

We need to have rules that are linked to what we want to do in future for investment in the digital and environmental transition. We need to be coherent with European political priorities. Rules are needed. So this is my starting point. I’m not saying that each member state can do exactly what they want. No, we need rules because when we need sustainability, we need stability - of course. We have a common currency, so we need rules. 

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EU railways

EU offers young people 60,000 rail passes to DiscoverEU

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The Commission will provide free travel rail passes to 60,000 Europeans aged from 18 to 20 years, thanks to DiscoverEU. Applications open tomorrow, 12 October, at noon and close on 26 October, at noon, for a travel period in 2022, which will be the European Year of Youth.

European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “Over the past 18 months, in a true spirit of solidarity, our young people have sacrificed valuable youthful and defining moments of their lives. I am delighted that the Commission offers today a European boom of mobility with the 60,000 train passes. This European boom of mobility and opportunities will be further fostered by Erasmus+ and many more initiatives coming for the European Year of Youth in 2022.”

Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: “I am very glad to open this new round of DiscoverEU to give 60,000 young people the chance to discover the richness of our continent. In the spirit of the Commission designating 2022 the European Year of Youth, DiscoverEU is back, bigger than ever, with new opportunities for young people to take a train, broaden their horizons, extend their learning, enrich their experiences and meet fellow Europeans while travelling by rail as of March 2022.”

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This application round is open to young Europeans born between 1 July 2001 and 31 December 2003. Exceptionally, 19 and 20 year-olds can also apply after their rounds were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Successful applicants can travel between March 2022 and February 2023 for up to 30 days. As the evolution of the pandemic remains unknown, all travellers will be offered flexible bookings through a new mobile travel pass. The departure date can be changed right up until the time of departure. The mobile travel passes have a one-year validity. The Commission advises all travellers to check potential travel restrictions on ReopenEU.

Young people with special needs are strongly encouraged to participate in DiscoverEU. The Commission will put information and tips at their disposal and cover the costs of special assistance, such as an accompanying person, an assistance dog, etc.

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Successful applicants can travel alone or in a group of up to five people (all within the eligible age range). To reinforce sustainable travel - and thereby support the European Green Deal, DiscoverEU participants will predominantly travel by rail. However, to ensure wide access across the EU, participants can also use alternative modes of transport, such as coaches or ferries, or exceptionally, planes. This will ensure that young people living in remote areas or on islands also have a chance to take part.

Every member state is allocated a number of travel passes, based on its population, as a proportion of the overall population of the European Union.

Background

The Commission launched DiscoverEU in June 2018, following a proposal from the European Parliament. It has been formally integrated into the new Erasmus+ programme 2021-2027.

DiscoverEU connects thousands of young people, building a community across Europe. Participants who had never met before linked up on social media, exchanged tips or offered local insights, formed groups to travel from city to city or stayed at each other's places.

In 2018-2019, 350,000 candidates applied for a total of 70,000 travel passes available: 66% of candidates travelled for the first time by train out of their country of residence. For many, it was also the first time they travelled without parents or accompanying adults and the majority indicated that they had become more independent. The DiscoverEU experience has given them a better understanding of other cultures and of European history. It has also improved their foreign language skills. Two-thirds said that they would not have been able to finance their travel pass without DiscoverEU.

Since 2018, former and prospective DiscoverEU travellers now form a diverse and engaged community that meets on- and offline to share their experiences.

Participants are invited to become DiscoverEU Ambassadors to champion the initiative. They are also encouraged to contact fellow travellers on the official DiscoverEU group online to share experiences and exchange tips, particularly on cultural experiences, or on how to travel digitally and sustainably.

To apply, eligible candidates need to complete a multiple-choice quiz on general knowledge about the European Union and other EU initiatives targeting young people. An additional question invites applicants to make an estimate of how many people apply in this round. The closer the estimate is to the correct answer, the more points the applicant gets. This will enable the Commission to rank the applicants. The Commission will offer travel passes to applicants following their ranking, until the available tickets run out.

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Economy

Connecting Europe Express reaches final destination after 20,000km journey

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On 7 October, the Connecting Europe Express reached its final destination of Paris after 36 days travelling across Europe - West to East, North to South, and even visiting neighbours outside the EU.  This train was specially put together for the occasion of the European Year of Rail 2021, aiming to raise awareness of the benefits of rail and the challenges which still need to be overcome. The train made over 120 stops, crossed 26 countries and 33 borders, travelling on three different gauges along the way.

Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said: “The Connecting Europe Express has been a rolling laboratory, revealing in real-time the many achievements of our Single European Rail Area and our TEN-T network to allow for seamless travel across our Union. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone who helped us turn the Connecting Europe Express from an idea into reality, a packed and exciting itinerary, memorable meetings – of minds and persons – and a true flag-bearer for European rail.”

Andreas Matthä, Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) chairman and CEO of Austrian Federal Railways, said: “The Connecting Europe Express has achieved two targets today. Not only has it reached its final destination in Paris but, more importantly, it has highlighted the challenges in cross-border train services. If another important target, the Green Deal, is to be a success, it must become as easy to drive a train through Europe as it is to drive a truck. For this to be achieved, rail will need more capacity and new investments in infrastructure. Framework conditions must be adapted to create a level playing field between all modes of transport. I congratulate and thank everyone involved in this highly successful project.”

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The final event in Paris was an opportunity to present the initial conclusions drawn during the unique train journey.

  • First, for rail to unleash its potential, a true cross-border, modern, high-quality rail infrastructure is a basic requirement. There is a clear need for joint action to complete the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T): the core network by 2030, and the comprehensive network by 2050. The Commission will propose changes to the TEN-T Regulation later this year. On 16 September, a €7 billion call for proposals under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) was launched, for projects targeting new, upgraded and improved European transport infrastructure. The EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility can support the modernisation and interoperability of rail infrastructure, plus key infrastructure projects, such as the Lyon-Turin lines, the Brenner Base tunnel and Rail Baltica.
  • Second, existing infrastructure must be better managed and its capacity improved. Digitalisation can help. For example, deploying the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) will increase capacity, safety, reliability and punctuality. Research and innovation will also unlock more capacity, and the new ‘Europe's Rail' partnership will build on the successful work of Shift2Rail.
  • Third, greater pan-European coordination and common requirements are needed, and the Single European Rail Area must be enhanced. For example, Europe's train drivers should be able to accompany their trains across borders, just as pilots and truck lorry drivers can. And the 4th railway package must be transposed quickly to eliminate other remaining obstacles created by national rules and establish an open and competitive European market for rail – technically, operationally and commercially.
  • Fourth, rail needs to become more attractive to encourage more people and companies to choose rail. Improving ticketing and options for planning travel across transport modes would help, as would lowering the costs of rail travel in comparison to the alternatives. Against this backdrop, the Commission will present an Action Plan to boost long-distance cross-border passenger rail services in December.

Background

The Connecting Europe Express has been a collective European achievement. It has brought together national, regional and local authorities, society at large and the rail sector, from new entrants and incumbent operators to infrastructure managers and the supply industry. More than 40 partners from the sector joined forces to combine an Austrian sleeper coach with an Italian dining coach, a Swiss panoramic coach, a German seating coach, a French conference coach and a Hungarian exhibition coach; completing the standard gauge train with an Iberian and Baltic train. The railway sector association CER coordinated the technical and operational running of the trains with the 40 plus railway actors involved. 

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Throughout its journey, the train hosted several conferences and a mobile exhibition, and welcomed school classes, policymakers, stakeholders and other citizens on board. Additional conferences and welcome events were organized along the way and the train stops coincided with key events such as the informal meeting of transport and energy ministers in Brdo, Slovenia, as well as the first-ever Western Balkans Rail Summit in Belgrade. In Halle (Saale), Germany, passengers witnessed the beginning of the era of digital automatic coupling for freight wagons as well as intermodal operations at the Bettembourg terminal in Luxembourg.

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EU railways

Railways are the backbone of sustainable mobility and key to delivering EU climate objectives

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The European Commission held a conference on 30 September entitled “Building up a network of European long-distance rail services”, on the occasion of the arrival of the Connecting Europe Express in Berlin. Speaking at the event, Dr Alberto Mazzola, Executive Director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), will stress that the long-term vision of the railway sector is the creation of a seamless European high-speed network, linking European capitals and major cities, supporting the development of an international passenger service market in order to deliver the EU’s climate objectives. 

Railways are enablers for sustainable multimodal mobility services at local and regional level and want to play a bigger role in door-to-door mobility chains. To achieve this ambitious goal, passenger experience needs to be central to business plans and regulatory demands alike. The journey experience is dependent on seamless ticketing and digitalisation, but also includes the affordability of ticket prices, the speed and duration of rail passenger travel, the reliability of the services as well as on-board facilities. The aim of any sustainable strategy should be to shift short and medium distance travel in Europe from road and air to rail to cut CO2 emissions. Therefore, it is also essential to fully internalise environmental externalities with a smarter approach on pricing that is based on the ‘user-pays’ and the ‘polluter-pays’ principles. More commercially viable international train services could then be developed.  

High-speed and night trains are a sustainable alternative to cheap flights with a range of 1000 km if appropriate political support is provided, and the sector would like to double its share of Europe’s passenger traffic to 15% by 2030. In order to achieve this, several legal and technical obstacles need to be addressed in relation to setting up new cross-border international train services, including night trains. Harmonised technical and regulatory framework conditions in Europe still need to be fully implemented and obstacles to full interoperability pose major technical, operational and economic challenges for cross-border passenger transport. Fast harmonisation of technical and operational rules, norms, and requirements is needed. 

The European Rail Sector stakeholders* support the work of the International Rail Passenger Platform and the willingness of its members to improve international rail passenger services. The rail sector realises that the status quo is not an option: the international transport systems of Europe need to be adapted to face the challenges of the ongoing and accelerating climate crisis.

CER Executive Director Alberto Mazzola looks forward to an interesting debate on these topics, noting: “An interconnected and competitive network of rail passenger services will underpin the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of our continent."

The Commission Conference ‘Building up a network of European long-distance rail services’ is being live streamed from the Connecting Europe Express website here.

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