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Valentina Pop - EU Observer

Nordic countries eyeing 'core' EU transport network

Scandinavian cross-border bridges and highways are given as an example for successful project management in an area where the EU is currently trying to cut waste, politicking and huge delays in execution by focusing on a 'core' network of transport routes.


The EU ambition is high: to establish smoothly interconnected highways, railroads, inland waterways and airports "of the highest strategic and economic importance throughout the EU."

The 'core network' to be unveiled by the European Commission in September is supposed to "link East and West, old and new member states" as well as neighbouring countries, focusing rather on cross-border connections than grand national projects, a working paper published last year announced.

It aims to clean up the 30-odd list of priority projects, mostly rather the result of intense national lobbying than economic rationale or the desire to make it as easy as possible for a traveller to get from one country to another.

- We'd like to focus more on those bits that no-one wants to build, which make the connection between countries," one EU official told AnalysNorden.

More EU money is set to go to the projects in the 'core network' and less in those adjacent or indirectly connected to it.

This is likely to set off another heavy round of lobbying from member states, replicating the wrangling when the first EU transport network - TEN-T - was established in the mid-90s. However, this would be exactly what the 'core network' seeks to avoid, with tougher selection criteria and cut-off dates for the funding if projects are delayed too long.

Øresund - a rare success story

According to the European Commission's estimates, removing 20-25 major bottlenecks such as poor inter-connections at the borders, half-way built bridges or tunnels may generate up to 2.9 million jobs by 2020. Making common standards work for instance in unifying rail track widths or electrification systems would also save up a lot of money and speed up the flow of passengers and goods.

One good example of on-time execution and no extra costs compared to the initial estimates - an exception to the overall European performance - is the Øresund bridge connecting the Danish capital to the Swedish city of Malmö since 2000, to which the EU contributed with €127 million out of a total cost of €2.7 billion.

With rail and car transport doubling thanks to this inter-connection, businesses also sprung up, as well as a regional university and research centre. 

- The Øresund fixed link demonstrates the extent to which infrastructure is essential for the functioning of the Internal Market," the EU commission wrote in a recent presentation of its priorities for the next multi-annual budget.

But many more projects listed as priorities on the TEN-T network map still remain unfinished, more than 15 years after being selected: Betuweroute, a double track freight railway running from Dutch Rotterdam to Germany, is listed as completed since 2007, but the German part of the project is still not ready. A tunnel from Italy's Turin to Lyon in France is delayed due to worries it will spoil nature in the Alps, while an inland waterway project running from Rotterdam to the Black Sea in Romania has also been held up by environmental concerns.

In a bid to put more pressure on contractors, the EU is looking at scrambling together more resources, but under much stricter conditions: different envelopes, such as rural development or research and development could be made available for the 'core network' projects, provided they stick to agreed deadlines or else lose the money. The projects would also need to meet higher environmental standards and clearly generate employment.

The lone Finn

Under current rules, the EU only allocates €8 billion specifically under the TEN-T scheme, with the bulk of the financing - €196 billion - coming from national budgets. Another €43 billion earmarked for infrastructure projects can also be tapped from the bloc's "structural funds" aimed at helping poorer regions to catch up with more affluent neighbours. The European Investment Bank also offers low-interest loans and financial guarantees of up to €65 billion.

Once published, the Commission's 'core network' proposal will have to pass through the Council of ministers and the European Parliament before it will actually change the current rules and funding criteria.

In the Parliament's transport committee where this legislative proposal will be dissected first, Ville Itälä has a lonely job: As a Finn, he is the only representative of a Nordic country sitting as a full member.  Three others from Sweden and Denmark can also take part in the meetings of the committee, but only when full members are absent.

- I am trying to convince my colleagues that Scandanivan coutries don't have to be left out. It's hard, because there is the working assumption that southern countries need more money for these kind of projects, he told AnalysNorden.

- But of course there will be some northern projects included in the core network, he added.

In view of the hard bargaining around the EU's next multi-annual budget, Itälä said that transport infrastructure should be kept high on the priority list.

- We need more money for such projects. In order to get economic growth back on track, we need good transport networks, he said.

As an example, he said that one good project was to connect the newly developed mines in Lapland to the Finnish capital Helsinki.

- It's also important to have good railway connections to and from Russia, he said, while acknowledging that the technical difficulties are big due to the different track width the Russians employ.

For now, however, figures remain vague - for instance the new government in Helsinki has not made it clear yet what its priorities are and how much money it will set aside to co-finance such infrastructure projects.

Putting order to the transport jungle

Another potential money-grabber in the North could be the Fehmarn Belt, the immersed tunnel set to connect northern Germany to the Danish island of Lolland and from there to Copenhagen.

The project, expected to be finalised by 2020 is already on the TEN-T list for an EU financing of 5-10 percent of a total cost estimated at €5 billion. It remains however to be seen if it will be considered part of the 'core' or rather of the connecting network. Environmental concerns linked to the digging of the tunnel, as well as protests from the German ferry operators may delay the project even further, despite it already being discussed for more than 30 years.

All in all, the new 'core network' seems to try and put some order and sense of urgency in the myriad of projects and do it quicker than the TEN-T network has managed in its 15 years of existence. And in order 'not to create confusion', as one EU source put it, the Commission will actually keep the current TEN-T axes, some of which will be in the 'core', while others in the connecting network.

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