When the foundations for what was to become the European Union were laid with the signing of the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) on 25 March 1957 at the Capitol in Rome, transport policy was already referred to in the agreement text: in addition to eliminating customs duties and adopting a common trade policy towards third countries, Article 3 stipulates “the abolition, as between Member States, of the obstacles to the free movement of persons, services and capital” and expressly “the inauguration of a common transport policy”.

Today, the common transport policy is a central pillar of the single market in the European Union. It is crucial to accomplishing the free movement of persons, services and goods. Moreover, the transport sector represents a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of the Union, accounting for around 9 percent of European gross value added in 2016: in that year alone, economic output in the sector totalled some 664 billion euros generated by 11 million employees.

To harmonise or to liberalise – that was the question

However, although the transport sector is explicitly named in the Treaties of Rome, it would be almost three decades before the aims agreed in 1957 were translated into concrete political measures. This delay was due to a longstanding fundamental dispute over whether common policy areas in the EC should first be liberalised – i.e., opened up to other market participants within the single market – or harmonised – i.e., aligned with a common regulatory framework. Germany, together with other member states, consistently argued in favour of starting with regulatory alignment so as to facilitate subsequent liberalisation.

Mounting political pressure to complete the internal market, in conjunction with legal proceedings “for failure to act” brought by the European Parliament before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) finally provided the impetus for the formulation of an active transport policy for what was then the European Community (EC). The 1985 ruling of the CJEU required the Council of the EC to extend the freedom to provide services already implemented in other areas to the transport sector as well.

The decisive measures to this end were not long in coming: in June 1985, heads of state and government gathered in Milan unveiled their white paper “Completing the Internal Market”, envisaging the creation of a free market with regard to goods transport by 1992. In November, the EC Council of Transport Ministers followed suit, declaring that from 1992 not only would quantitative restrictions on cross-border transport be abolished, but other distortions of competition such as tolls or motor vehicle taxes would be harmonized in future.

The Maastricht Treaty as a turning point

When the European Union was founded with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, aside from the agreed opening of markets and creation of an EU-wide common transport market, issues of transport safety, economic and social cohesion, and not least environmental protection were tackled for the first time. Since then, it has been a stated aim of the EU to continually pursue the integration of member states’ transport infrastructure with a view to creating “Trans-European Networks” (TEN).

Reconciling sustainable mobility and growth

Since the 1990s, and in particular since the eastward enlargement of 2004, goods transport in the EU has undergone dramatic growth, while other modes of transport such as rail or inland shipping have stagnated. Against this backdrop, the concept of sustainable and “intermodal” mobility has become increasingly relevant. The key step in achieving this goal is shifting goods transport from roads to rail, maritime and inland shipping, and increasing interoperability among the various modes and systems of transport. This is intended to lead to a more balanced load distribution among the different modes of transport, and should ensure and improve safety and sustainability.

From economic governance in transport to the future of mobility

Whereas common transport policy in Europe started out as an area of the single market more concerned with economic governance, rising transport volumes in the EU and more recently the growing urgency of the debate on climate change have shifted the focus away from this economic governance dimension towards concrete transport policy measures. Examples of such measures include the European satellite-based navigation system Galileo, which combines intelligent management of traffic flows with digital sovereignty, or the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), designed to boost the integration of national railway systems. Innovative solutions are needed for private transport too, however: for example, drivers in Germany spend an average of 41 hours each year looking for a parking spot. A smart parking solution displaying free parking spaces on an appropriate platform could help avoid around one million tonnes of CO2 annually. Meanwhile, the EU has defined clear goals: the European Commission’s current “White Paper on Transport” calls for 30 percent of road freight transport to be transferred to other modes of transport such as rail or shipping by 2030, rising to more than 50 percent by 2050. With regard to urban and private mobility, the share of “conventionally fuelled” vehicles in city centres is to be halved by 2030 and reduced to the absolute minimum by 2050. On a fundamental level, the EU is working towards increased “application of ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles and private sector engagement to eliminate distortions”.

Lessons from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of functioning transport networks and effectively organised mobility to citizens, businesses and economic prosperity. The pandemic has also underscored the value of smoothly functioning transport systems in times of crisis. Accordingly, under the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the key points have been drawn up for a pandemic contingency plan designed to safeguard supply chains in crisis situations and therefore the provision of food and medicines.

Digitisation as an opportunity to overhaul the transport sector

One thing is clear: the challenges faced by the European transport sector necessitate a comprehensive overhaul. For instance, the goal of complete decarbonisation in transport can only be achieved by means of zero-emission mobility. Alongside policy decisions, innovations have a decisive role to play. The “New Mobility Approach” of the German Presidency of the Council regards climate action and innovation as a single unit that approaches transport and logistics from a European perspective from the outset. In addition to developing new, non-fossil synthetic fuels or expanding charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, this refers in particular to digital technologies. The “Connecting Europe Facility” financial regulation, for example, paves the way for the process referred to as TEN Streamlining: the expansion of EU‑wide multimodal corridors providing fast connections. The core networks are scheduled to be completed by 2030; the vision is for passengers to be able to travel, say, from Helsinki to Malta via Copenhagen and Munich with a single ticket and as few changes as possible. This will be made possible primarily by intelligent interfacing between the individual modes of transport, thereby boosting their efficiency while reducing their environmental impact.

If we can succeed in combining climate action and innovation in European transport policy, we will have the opportunity to increase European integration and secure a globally competitive position for the European Union.