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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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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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‘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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Economy

‘We need an economy that works for everyone, that takes account of the climate crisis’ Andresen MEP

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The EU will be reopening its discussion on the rules coordinating national fiscal and economic policies in the next months. ‘Fiscal Matters’, which brings together social, environmental, civil society and academics invited experts and politicians to share their views on what changes were needed to the current framework. EU Reporter spoke to Rasmus Andresen MEP (DE) from the Green group on how parties could learn from the past and set a new path towards the future. 

EU Reporter (ER): Do you think we've learned from the financial crisis and the EU's response to the pandemic?

RA:There are a lot of lessons we should learn. From our perspective, as greens in the European Parliament, we want to see reform of the fiscal policy and the fiscal rules at a European level. First of all, the fiscal rules have been the reason economic division in the last years in the EU has grown. We still can see a high level of debt and a lot of countries, are seeing deeper social, and economic division, this is something we need to address. We could see deeper divides and we need an economic framework that works for everyone and which also takes into account that we have other challenges, like the climate crisis.

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ER: You are, of course, a German Green MEP and we know that following federal elections in Germany (26 September) there's probably going to be a coalition government and that the Green Party will be part of that coalition. Do you think there will be much change in the economic approach of a coalition government that involves the Green Party?

RA: We need things to be different. It's true, it's not easy to go into the negotiations because we know that we will have to negotiate with the current finance minister of Germany. But at least I think that now that the campaigns are over we can have an honest talk about European fiscal policy, the situation in Europe, and what we need to do. But as Greens, we will fight for a different fiscal policy and a new German position.

ER: There are rumours that the liberals will want an economic post within the new government as part of their agreement to be part of the coalition. Is that something that you in the Green Party would resist? Or is it more important to have an agreement on the substance as part of the coalition rather than ministerial positions in the administration?

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RA: I mean, you can't change climate policy, you can't change social policy, European affairs without having a strong role in economic policy. And yes, this is one of the key conflicts we will face with the liberals (FDP), which has quite a different position. In the Social Democratic Party there is a lot of support for green policy, but with the liberals, they are opposing a lot of our ideas. If you’re looking at how  the coalition talks are going in Germany, and how successful they could be, then you have to have a closer look on the economic policy and the negotiations about this, because I think that there, the conflicts or the differences in this area are bigger than in others.

ER: Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, has suggested that investment linked to meeting net zero could maybe be excluded from the current spending restrictions. Do you think this solution would be enough?

RA: It could be a good first step, because the spending needs related to the climate transition are enormous. We are not prepared for this at a European level. So this could be one solution out of many others where we could see some steps in the right direction. My hope is that the new German government will at least be open to this, because we know that we need support from the member states, especially from some of the bigger and richer ones. 

ER: Today, you were speaking at a discussion on cross party support for a new approach. This links a little into what you've already been saying about forming a coalition and the approach to green funding. But do you think that will be possible? Do you think the atmosphere has changed?

AR: Yes, in the European Parliament, we, for the first time in the history of the European Parliament actually came up with a report, which expressed support for changing the fiscal rules. It’s a report where a majority in the parliament said that we need to change the fiscal rules and that recognized that we are in a new situation, which is actually good news. And we also can see some new developments going on in the European Commission, you already mentioned. So my feeling is that from the side of the Parliament and the European Commission, there will be some pressure, there will be some new developments and then we can try to push the member states so that it will actually happen.

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