Sant: Malta should show full solidarity on EU’s coronavirus rescue package

Labour MEP says Malta Business Bureau may not be proactive enough to warn MEPs of problematic EU rules such as those on trucking

Labour MEP Alfred Sant
Labour MEP Alfred Sant

Labour MEP Alfred Sant has said that the Maltese private sector’s lobby in Brussels should be more proactive in flagging European developments that could hamper the island’s competitiveness.

His criticism came after being asked by MaltaToday over the failure of Maltese MEPs to have a raft of amendments passed at committee stage, to soften the blow of EU cabotage rules on Maltese logistics and trucking firms.

“The fact we’re a small country means we cannot cover all committees, and in the last legislature we had nobody covering the transport committee,” Sant said. “So effectively you had a package of laws which, in this case, is the subject of differences between east and west – a fight over social conditions in the east making cheaper the demand for goods from the west.”

But Sant said that the Malta Business Bureau in Brussels should have also been presenting its position on the law to MEPs.

“As far as I can tell, the MBB has never communicated its issues on this matter. I did ask some informal questions… nothing came back to me. So this could be a critical problem for Malta.”

Labour MEP Josianne Cutajar, who is a substitute member on the TRAN committee, said she had met Maltese stakeholders on their concerns and that she had coordinated with all MEPs from Malta to be united in their position on the mobility package.

However, none of the influential MEPs in the TRAN committee supported the amendments. Yet more amendments could be presented to the final text presented to the plenary. “This has always been an uphill struggle when a one-size-fits-all package of rules is supported by a majority of countries.”

Sant also echoed a strong position in favour of the EU recovery plan, almost warning against cautious positioning from frugal EU member states. “We must participate fully in ensuring that the European economy does not collapse,” he said after a presentation on the different stances between northern and southern member states’ position on the coronavirus package. “We already got burnt in 2008-9. This is much worse than that. We should do our calculations later.”

With finance minister Edward Scicluna calling the coronavirus package a ‘prickly pear’, due to the fact that Malta may have to raise its own resources to finance its share of the package, Sant said there was no other alternative for Malta. “We have to work on the basis of full solidarity. Now that we are full eurozone members, we must bear this cross… even at the cost of a few pricks.”

‘We came out too late’

Earlier this week, Express Trailers CEO Franco Azzopardi warned that proposed European rules on trucking will have an adverse effect on Maltese businesses due to an inevitable increase in freight costs.

The EU Mobility Package adopted by the European Council on 7 April 2020 and approved by the European Parliament on 8 June will see a major reform of the EU road transport sector that includes new rules claimed to improve drivers’ working conditions, to regulate governing access to the road haulage market and also to regulate maximum work and minimum rest times for drivers.

Azzopardi said the EU mobility package will bring major disruption to its operations and costs, which, “needless to say will be passed on to the importer and exporter.”

“Every eight weeks, we will have to bring our trucks back to Malta for a week and then returned back to the continent. This means that every truck will be laying idle for six and a half weeks every year. To make good for this and to ensure our steady service, for every eight trucks we have on the continent, we will need to acquire another truck just to fill the gap of the dead time of the fleet. Why should we be forced to invest say, €500,000 to acquire five new trucks and incur depreciation and amortisation without any return on investment?”

“From where we stand this is a capriciously designed rule, camouflaged under an environmental excuse which in my view is complete nonsense. Miles will still have to covered to carry cargo from exporter to importer. Difference is that now those miles will cost much more due to the amortisation of the cost of unproductive capital tied up the additional trucks that will give us no miles.”

Azzopardi suggested that the rules could be an orchestration by more influential countries to protect their companies from more competitive companies doing trucking operations on mainland Europe. “I really can see no other reason for it having been put forward at EU level,” Azzopardi said.

He referred to the rule of ‘cabotage’ which defines that in EU countries, trucking companies cannot do more than 3 operations in an EU country, within 7 days, and now without getting out of that country and ‘cooling off’ for 4 days.

“I feel this rule goes head-on against the EU principles of free movement and in Malta’s case, it is paralysing. Malta’s size and that of its businesses make it near impossible to have less than three stops or pick-up points from a country. We already struggle to operate sustainably. What we do is, by specialising in ‘groupage’, we load and stack trailers as much as possible, with multiple units of cargo going to the same country regions for dropping off at different addresses so as to optimise tour efficiencies.”

He said the ‘cabotage’ rule prohibits Maltese companies from doing such multiple operations within 7 consecutive days in the same country because of the limitation of up to three operations, when they normally complete a whole tour with a multiple of operations in just a couple of days.

“In my view, this is nothing but protectionism of the territory hauliers and if you had to ask me, goes against the true spirit of the EU, at least the way I understand it to be.”

“I am not sure whether Maltese MEPs together with the transport and economy authorities fought this EU Mobility Package tooth and nail from the outset. Even if recently, all the local MEPs came out strong and united against the new regulations, the timing was wrong,” he said.

“To my knowledge, the EU does not function that way. We came out too late.”

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