Creating a level-playing field in the EU: fair opportunities for the different transport modes require regulatory action

01. März 2019 zur Übersicht

Interview mit Michael Cramer erschienen im Journal des Europäischen Rechnungshofes am 28.2.2019

As former Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism Michael Cramer has dealt with several ECA reports that examined EU investments in transport, like airports, seaports or getting freight from road to rail. How useful are such reports for a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and particularly for him, being entrenched with transport issues both as a politician back in Germany and now at the EU level? Michael Cramer’s experience in the area is not only rich and diverse, and he is known to be an adept user of public transport.

Interview von Gaston Moonen


Energy as driving force ... towards transport


Speaking with Michael Cramer it quickly becomes clear that transport has been a red thread through his professional and political life. With a large impact on his personal life, trying to make use of public transport means as much as he can. At the roots of this interest in transport politics, and what later motivated him to join the Green party in Germany, was the energy dilemma. ‘I was against nuclear power stations and I took part in the protests against the plans to build a plant in Whyl, in Baden Württemberg, in the early seventies. And, when thinking about it then, already then I considered that energy and transport belong together. My thinking then, and now, is that without a change of mobility, we cannot save the climate.’

He quickly provides some figures for this reasoning, and throughout the interview it becomes clear that figures are important to his arguments. ‘Currently, in the EU, the transport sector is responsible for 24% of all the CO2 emissions. And within that more than 70% from road transport. For myself I decided, to be consistent with my political beliefs, to sell my car in 1979.’ He explains that being without a car does not necessarily mean to be less mobile. ‘If you have a car you probably do not like too much taking a taxi. But if you have no car, instead of waiting twenty minutes in the winter for the next bus, you take a taxi, which I did. And then I gathered all my taxi receipts. And it turned out that using the taxi rather frequently during the entire year costed me not much more than driving my car for one month.’ He summarises: ‘So it was more comfortable, it was considerably cheaper, and ... better for the climate!’

On the question whether he missed the freedom that a car can give to go where you want he replies with a big laugh: ‘No, the freedom is actually greater without a car than with a car. Suppose you are with a group of people and you drink two beers. If you are there by car you need to stop there. I was allowed to drink to a third beer, and even sometimes a fourth one.’ Moreover ‘In a city, with a car, you usually also need more time.’ He acknowledges though that renouncing a car is much easier in the city than in the countryside where there are much fewer public transport connections.

Then back to some figures, making clear how important the link is between transport and climate. ‘You must know that the transport sector in the EU is the only sector where you have an increase in CO2 emissions since 1990. We have a decrease in the industry by nearly 40%. We ave a decrease in the energy sector by 25%. And we have a decrease in CO2 emissions by 25% in the housing sector.’ He points out that the trend is totally opposite in transport, saying that since 1990, there was an increase in emissions by 25%. ‘So the transport sector nullifies all the efforts we have done with billions of euros from our taxpayers in other sectors!’


Picking low hanging fruit in transport modes


Within the transport sector Michael Cramer clearly believes that there are still numerous possibilities to improve things through picking low-hanging fruit. Take for example automation in the different transport modes. Michael Cramer: ‘We have nearly automation in the air sector by the pilots in the aircraft, up to 90% is done through automation. But what is happening in the other transport modes? I live in Berlin and 40 years ago we had a fully automated underground line in Berlin. But there was such a fear that the passengers would not like it that the operating authority put every time one person in the train to give the impression that he or she was driving the train. But it was all automated! But after two years they stopped the automated lines.’ And he comes up with another current example, with automated lines in Lille.

He points out that now everybody is mainly thinking about automated driving on the road. ‘But this is actually very complicated. For instance, if there is an accident, who is responsible? The one who produced the car, who bought the car or the one who sold the car?’ In his view there are many possibilities for automation in other transport modes. ‘And the same applies to electric mobility, with 95% thinking about electrification of road traffic.’ Again he has figures to clarify his point. ‘I can tell you, in the EU we have nearly 50% of the rail network which is electrified. But electrification takes a long time. . In Germany, the decision to electrify the whole rail network was taken in 1909. More than 100 years later, we are only at 60%.’ In contrast, Switzerland has achieved 100% electrification, and Belgium stands at 70%.

But Michael Cramer is a fan of public transport not only for environmental reasons. ‘I like very much to quote Hans Jochem Vogel, former minister and party leader in Germany. When he was a very young mayor, 47 years ago, in Munich in 1972, he said: “the car is murdering our city.”’ He explains that, even if all becomes electric, one would still have too many cars, with all the downsides on safety, time loss, parking problems. ‘We will continue to be for many thousands of hours in a traffic jam. I therefore say: we have to avoid, we have to reduce the use of cars!’

Michael Cramer emphasizes that not only the Greens are making this point. ‘I now come with a figure from car-friendly minister, Peter Ramsauer from the Bavarian CSU. He said: “In German cities, 90% of all the distances made by car, is less than six kilometres. And six kilometres or less are ideal distances for going on foot, by bike, by tram or by bus.”’ Then the MEP from the Green party gives another figure: ‘If I would have told you, 30 years ago, that today more than half of people in Copenhagen will commute to work by bike , you would have said: 'Crazy guy, continue dreaming.' But this is now reality.’ He sights, saying: ‘Because they had a plan and they got it realised.’ And technology and innovation also takes away the argument of adverse topography. ‘Twenty years ago we were told that is fine to cycle in the Netherlands or northern Germany, but not in mountainous Bavaria. But now, with electrical bikes, this argument is gone.’

Related to this Michael Cramer brings up the so- called ‘Giesskannenprinzip’ – freely translated, scattering the resources over many people. He is in favour of the electrification of bikes, and likewise of buses, taxis, etc. ‘But not according to this ‘Giesskannenprinzip,‘ with a pot of €5 billion in Germany available to subsidize everybody who wants to buy an electric car, even when it is a very expensive car.’ In his view, money should be provided for electrification of specific stretches, for example the Berlin –Brotslave rail line . ‘In a stretch of 350 km there is a gap of 50 km which is not electrified. It would cost about €100 million to close this gap and you will save 2,5 hours travel time.’ Then, with some agitation: ‘Spending €410 billion, in 20 years, to reduce the time from Berlin to Munich by roughly two hours, that is not a problem. But with one percent of this sum you can save - in one or two years - two and a half hours. But that is too much money.’ He gives this as example of a potential that, in his view, is often ignored: ‘Only 5% of the passengers in the EU are travelling on high speed trains, 95% of the passengers are on distances that are less than 50 kilometres.’

Michael Cramer gives another example where he finds that just reasoning rationally, easy gains can be made by providing tailor made solutions. ‘Take Berlin where you need most time to get from your house to the bus station, or the underground station. But in Berlin you can take your bike in trams, underground and S-Bahn. With this combination I am a lot quicker than by car.’ He recalls that, when he was in the State Parliament of Berlin, he would go by bike for nine kilometres. ‘With public transport I would need 45 minutes, by bike only 30. So I did it at least four times a week, so I saved one hour a week. My car-driving friends, instead went four times a week to a fitness center, but it takes them 30 minutes to drive there, another half an hour to look for a parking place, half an hour jumping in the fitness center, and half an hour back. Six hours in the car for the same 30 minutes of physical activity!’


Bringing an explicitly green transport mode to the EU stage


Even outside politics cycling is clearly one of Michael Cramer favourite topics, so it comes at no surprise that he has also written a cycle guide on the routes along the former Iron Curtain. In his view, cycling is also a key factor in tourism. ‘In the past people thought that bike tourists are students, people with no money. I think that has changed totally. There is a study from Switzerland that a bike tourist spends € 35 per day, without accommodation, compared to only € 10 by a car tourist. We know that cycling is environmentally friendly and healthy. But economically, the effects are not that well known. That must be changed. Building infrastructure for bicycles, such as bicycle paths and parking, is cheap, but the economic benefits can be very high.’

He gives an example regarding the Danube trail, where in Serbia they counted 500 bike tourists in 2008. And after some signposting it increased in four years to 13 000. ‘In the EU, the market for bike tourism is estimated at €44 billion.’ For comparison he refers to the value of the cruise ship industry in the EU, good for €39 billion. ‘But when the cruise shipping industry wants to have a new terminal for €500 million authorities think: that is good for jobs and business. But €5 million to support bicycle tourism is often considered too expensive. I always mention it to the representatives of the bike industry. You must come together and then there is potential to influence political decision making, also since you are an economic factor.’


EU funding concentrated on big infrastructure projects


Michael Cramer finds it positive that now, for about two years ago, the European Commission has said: ‘OK, we will now, for the small missing links, make available €110 million.’ He laughs: ‘Then many wishes surfaced, and now the amount increased to €140 million euro, and they will continue working on this.’ He believes that creating these smaller links will enable the EU to come together. ‘Since decades we are investing billions of euros in the rail infrastructure, but if you look at the map, it remains a patchwork with weak cross-border links.’ He gives another example of this problem. ‘Take the link between Brussels and Valenciennes in France, where the European Railway Agency is located. Today you need two hours to go there from Brussels, by train. There is a gap of not more than 800 metres. If this gap were to be closed, you would only need one hour. But in the last 30 years this missing link has not been built.’

Michael Cramer points out that in principle he has nothing against big infrastructure projects, but that it is sometimes much more efficient to invest in smaller connections. ‘For example, the Rail Baltica is very important to connect the Baltic States with the rest of Europe. But the Lyon – Turin corridor, and even the Fehmarnbelt tunnel project, they are not necessary. Moreover, these projects take up a lot of money. I always say: most of the big projects have nothing to do with transport, in my view they were rather created to support the building industry and perhaps even the banking industry.’

When speaking about the role of the EU in funding all these major connections, Michael Cramer underlines that many Member States take EU funds to finance national projects. ‘Take for example the transport corridor Stockholm – Palermo. Germany said: we want to have money for the stretch between Berlin and Erfuhrt. They took EU funding for that. But then, from Munich to the Brenner Base tunnel, they don’t even have a design. They are building the Brenner Base tunnel but not doing anything for the connection.’ Then he brings up the Gotthard tunnel in relation to which Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy and Germany signed a treaty 23 years ago to ease the traffic flows across the Alps. ‘Switzerland built the Gotthard tunnel and now Germany did not do anything to upgrade the rail connections along the Rhine valley. From Basel to Karlsruhe, around €4 billion of investments are needed to build this stretch. And three years ago, the budget in Germany earmarked for this project was €19 million euro. So it would take 200 years to build this missing infrastructure, absolutely crazy.’ He also gives an example of the opposite, namely to create a tunnel that will enable to increase the number of high speed trains from Italy to France from five to seven per day. ‘Not per hour, but per day. Italy wants to have this project built, for an estimated€12 billion. Already now, the French Cour des comptes said it would be €26 billion instead. Which is apparently not a problem for the French and Italian governments. For two trains per day more! But when small projects are discussed with cost overruns the conclusion often is: 'We have to stop it.' '


ECA reports to trigger change toward an equal EU level playing field


From 2014 to 2016 Michael Cramer was the Chair in the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN). In that capacity, he has studied several ECA special reports assessing EU performance on transport. He explains that for most transport projects with co-financing the project the decision to carry out the project is taken by a Member State. ‘But, I would prefer the Commission to have a stronger mandate to look at where the EU money is actually going. With as main criteria not the national perspective, but how good it is for the EU and, as a result, to what extent it should be funded with EU money! Therefore I very much like the ECA reports. And when I was chairing TRAN Committee I invited the ECA to present the reports in our parliamentary committee.’ He recalls a trip MEPs from his Committee made to Greece, where there was a new harbour. ‘When construction was finished there was not a single ship. Because the winds were most often too strong. Why is this not taken into account before? Or the ECA report about regional airports, with findings which are absolutely astonishing.’

Michael Cramer is convinced that the EU needs to create a level playing field for transport and stresses how important it is that the ECA produces reports such as the one on airports. ‘I know that some airlines were against. We have in Germany 23 airports offering at least some international connections and only six are making profits, all others are in deficit.’ He compares it with the situation in rail: ‘If a connection there is making deficits it must be closed. We have an unfair competition between the transport modes and we are supporting, with tax payer’s money, those modes which are environmentally damaging, and not the ones which are environmentally friendly.’

When we discuss the Connecting Europe Facility through which the Commission has a more direct say in transport projects, Michal Cramer is not convinced that this programme will work better in the long term. He gives the example of some big projects in Italy: the Gotthard tunnel, the Brenner Base tunnel, the Lyon-Turin connection. ‘Not a single project is finalised. In my view, the Commission should insist that the most important links are finalised first, before other projects can be initiated. For example, as long as Italy is not able or willing to upgrade the rail connection towards the Gotthard tunnel, which is finished, to complete the corridor from Genoa to Rotterdam, they should not get EU money for other projects.’ He also believes that the Commission should leverage more with the big projects to get smaller connections also done: ‘As long as these small projects are not finalised, you will not get EU money.’

Despite all these shortcomings, Michael Cramer remains optimistic about the future for transport. ‘I am convinced we can save mobility and the climate. I will give you an example. In the EU we have a law that requires that each locomotive for each km of track has to pay a toll. For roads, it is the decision of the Member State if they want to have a toll. And in Germany it is only on highways and some regional roads. If you look at the EU, 100% of the railway network it tolled. And only 3% of the road network is tolled.’ A situation he considers unsustainable given that rail is environmentally friendly, whereas roads are clearly not.

Looking at aviation the MEP presents points to the hidden subsidies for this industry: ‘The airlines get every year €30 billion from EU taxpayers because these airlines do not pay kerosene tax and on international connections they do not pay no value added tax. Passengers on rail have to pay this. So it is easy to go for 80 euro from Berlin to Paris by plane. If you take the train you have to pay 180 euro. That is simply not fair competition! And as a Green politician I say very modestly: give the same rights for everybody. Either everybody is paying a toll or nobody. Either everybody is paying an energy tax, or nobody. The same for value added tax. If I go from Berlin by train to Brussels. It takes three times longer, is three times more expensive, and the Member State takes 19% of VAT. If I take a flight for the same journey, there is no VAT, no fuel tax, etc.’

Michael Cramer does not believe that the EU would get into trouble if a fuel tax would be introduced. ‘This competition argument is a fake argument. Of course I believe that a kerosene tax only for Germany is not good, it would not be fair. But we can do it in Europe. We are a strong continent, with many interesting destinations, and many people are coming here, and then they pay kerosene tax.’ He believes that paying €15 more to go from Berlin to Lisbon will not make you change your mind to take the trip. But it would help to create an equal level playing field for the different transport modes. ‘And then we have not even spoken about the fact that some airlines are prohibiting their staff to be a member of a trade union. Where do we live...?’

When it comes to business interests Michael Cramer provides a grim example. ‘At the moment we are fighting for passenger rights for railways. We want to have establish that in all the trains, also the high speed trains, you can take your bike. The railway companies are against, thereby creating a red carpet for their biggest competitors. It is not a problem to take my bike in a flight or in a Flix bus. In the last 15 years, the number of passengers in busses who wanted to take their bike with them increased from 15 000 to 100 000. In Germany, the railway companies will not allow it. And we should have a EU wide information platform, accessible for customers. But railway refused, saying such information is confidential. But if it is not a problem for airlines to share such information, how can it be a problem for them?’

He also gives an example of non-transparent rail ticket price setting:  ‘Buying  an  online  ticket  in  Germany,  going  from  Cologne to Prague is cheaper than a ticket from Cologne to Passau, which is a shorter distance.’ He sights: ‘Why is it not possible that we have one single app for the European rail network? It looks like the railway companies are among the last nationalistic bodies in the EU. I am even convinced that they would earn more money if they would work together, at a European scale.’


Key challenges from an MEP perspective


Michael Cramer considers fair competition to be one of the key challenges in transport. ‘Either everyone is paying VAT or no one, and the same goes for tolls and energy taxes. As a Green, I would say: those transport modes that are environmentally friendly, they have to be subsidised. But I am modest, I just ask for fair competition.’ However, he acknowledges the constraints the EU is facing in the area of fiscal policy: ‘You know, taxation is not up to the EU, taxation is still a decision of the Member States. And that must be changed. It cannot be that this continues. For creating an equal level playing field in transport, but also in view of companies like Google and Amazon not having to pay taxes or very little. Fair competition requires fairer taxation.’

As second challenge he thinks the EU should reconsider the focus of its investments. ‘In 20 years we have built a high speed rail from Berlin to Munich. For €20 billion, saving two hours. But how long will it take to get this investment back? Or the return on investment for the Lyon – Turin connection. This condition of return on investments seems to be gone for the big projects and is only applied for small projects.’ He makes the connection between the two points: ‘For the rail connection between Berlin and Munich it takes now four hours. But because it is so expensive many people go by plane, from Berlin to Munich, although they do not save time. But they save money.’

The MEP thinks that several ECA reports regarding transport have helped to get some future challenges clearer. ‘But I think it would help if the ECA would more often also look for, and present, good examples. Take the ECA special report on airports. Nearly all the examples were bad. Perhaps it was very difficult to find examples of good practice. But, for example if you say, this airport benefitted from improved railway connections, and this has helped them to have attract more passengers and better financial results.’

Most importantly, Michael Cramer believes that the EU need to set different priorities for its transport policy. ‘Funding is not necessarily the main problem. In my view, only if there is a different policy we can decide whether we need more money. If you do not change the attitude, more funding for transport would just mean that more money is lost!’

Das Interview im Original finden Sie hier