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Nationalist rhetoric? Or Europeanisation of trucking?

Big Wheels Car ShowYesterday, via Twitter, my attention was drawn to this story on Tory MP Steve Barclay’s website entitled “New charges for foreign lorries will boost local business”. Immediately I’m thinking sounds like a distortion to the EU’s single market. So I set out to try to find out what was really going on, because Barclay’s website for sure did not help.

The Guardian has a story about the issue, and the Freight Transport Association has a kind of briefing too, and the latter says:

Foreign-registered heavy goods vehicles (hgvs) do not pay to use the general road network in the UK, but UK-registered hgvs pay charges or tolls in most European countries

But, I would counter, French trucks also pay road tolls on French autoroutes (and equivalent schemes in other EU countries), a point that Barclay, The Guardian and the FTA all miss. The way the stories are framed makes it sound like this dastardly foreign truckers are coming to use British roads for free, while British truckers are at a disadvantage when driving in France and elsewhere.

Thankfully Søren Have on Twitter helped me out, pointing me to this map this page and map from the European Commission that explains what’s going on. All EU countries except the UK, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Cyprus have some sort of road charging scheme for trucks – either by day (vignette) or a distance-based charge. This charge is levied on all trucks – from that country, from another country, or from the UK. The problem is that the UK’s way of charging trucks – road tax per truck – is a tax rather than a charge, and hence only UK firms pay it.

So what is the UK government proposing to do? Put a £10 / day charge on trucks to use UK roads, or a £1000 / year charge, and for the UK trucks subtract these payments from the road tax. In short, the UK will adopt the sort of vignette scheme currently used in Netherlands, Sweden, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. Interesting that Belgium, Denmark and Hungary are all in the process of phasing out such a scheme and replacing it with a distance-based charge system, which strikes me as fairer. But a distance scheme is, in other words, road pricing, and we know the UK government cannot do that because Jeremy Clarkson opposes it.

So, far from being some invasion of foreign truckers, what is happening here is the Europeanisation of how to charge truckers. It is the UK government, and hauliers too, understanding that what happens in one EU country has an impact on others, and vice versa, and learning some lessons. It’s harmonisation of standards within the EU’s single market. But of course you would not know that from the way it is communicated within the UK…

Photo: "Big Wheels Car Show" by Martin Pettitt on August 8, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

So, what do you think ?