The House of Lords is set to debate the European Union Committee report Brexit: Road, Rail and Maritime Transport on 21 September 2020.

Committee report

The EU Committee’s report was published on 21 May 2019 following an inquiry undertaken by the EU Internal Market Sub-Committee on the implications of Brexit for UK-EU surface transport. In particular, the committee examined what measures may be needed to ensure efficient road, rail and maritime links under the future trading relationship.

The committee said it considered surface transport issues “primarily in the context of a negotiated Brexit”, but that it had also taken account of ‘no deal’ preparations on both sides. It found that some contingency options to maintain connectivity in a no deal scenario, or a negotiated Brexit that did not include comprehensive transport arrangements, were already established and “could be relied upon over the long term” (for example those in relation to some international bus travel), whereas others took the form of “temporary legislative measures—designed to avoid a ‘cliff edge’”. Examples of the latter included measures allowing temporary market access for hauliers. The report highlighted routes by which both types of arrangements could be improved, whether in the context of a negotiated or no deal withdrawal.

Conclusions and recommendations

The report included 43 conclusions and recommendations spanning a variety of issues relating to surface transport. These included issues not only affecting the road, rail and maritime sectors, but also those relating to the specific situation on the island of Ireland and certain “cross-modal” matters such as communication with businesses, passenger rights and infrastructure investment.

In respect of rail and maritime matters, the committee noted the then Government’s stated intention to pursue bilateral agreements on UK-EU rail links, namely the connection between Kent and northern France and the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Line. It also noted that maritime transport is largely underpinned by international law, meaning that after Brexit UK and EU maritime operators would, in most respects, be able to access each other’s ports as had been the case during the UK’s membership of the bloc.

However, on road transport the committee said that it was “difficult to overstate the importance of future arrangements to preserve UK-EU market access for hauliers” and called on the Government to work closely with the road haulage industry to make clear its priorities for future arrangements. It also urged an agreement on reciprocal market access for bus and coach travel; the principle of seeking agreement on mutual recognition in vehicle standards; and continuity in the present arrangements for private motorists.

On the specific circumstances on the island of Ireland, the committee called on the Government to seek agreement on maintaining the existing rights of bus and coach operators and hauliers. On other matters, the committee urged the Government to continue its “high level of engagement” with stakeholder groups.

Details of the Government’s subsequent negotiating position on future surface transport arrangements are outlined further down this article.

Government response

The Government responded to the committee’s report on 20 July 2019. In a covering letter, Chris Grayling, then Secretary of State for Transport, thanked the Internal Market Sub-Committee for its “thorough work and detailed analysis”. The response then set out the then Government’s position on the committee’s conclusions and recommendations in turn. This included reiterating the Government’s intention to secure a “smooth and orderly withdrawal” from the EU and a future agreement on road, rail and maritime matters that would have clear benefits for both markets.

Subsequent developments

Political declaration

The revised political declaration on the future relationship, agreed alongside a renegotiated withdrawal agreement by Boris Johnson’s Government in October 2019, included reference to modes of surface transport in line with its predecessor document. It stated the following in respect of future road, rail and maritime arrangements:

  • Road: “The parties should ensure comparable market access for freight and passenger road transport operators”, subject to certain underpinnings and obligations, and “should consider complementary arrangements to address travel by private motorists”.
  • Rail: “The parties agree that bilateral arrangements should be established, as appropriate, for cross-border rail services, including to facilitate the continued smooth functioning and operation of rail services, such as the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Line and services through the Channel Tunnel”.
  • Maritime: “The parties note that passenger and cargo connectivity in the maritime transport sector will be underpinned by the international legal framework” and “should also make appropriate arrangements on market access for international maritime transport services”. In addition, the future relationship “should facilitate cooperation on maritime safety and security […] consistent with the United Kingdom’s status as a third country”.

Negotiating positions

The European Council published its negotiating directives to the European Commission on 25 February 2020. The UK Government published a document setting out its approach to negotiations two days later, on 27 February 2020. Maritime and rail issues did not feature prominently in either document. Road transport, on the other hand, received more attention.

On road matters specifically, the UK position was essentially that UK and EU road haulage and passenger transport operators “should be entitled to provide services to, from and through each other’s territories with no quantitative restrictions”. The Government conceded that while there was no direct EU precedent for this, largely because the EU’s existing free trade agreements were with countries with which significant cross-border road transport was impractical for geographical reasons. However, the Government contended this arrangement would be consistent with many commercial road transport bilateral agreements between EU member states and non-EU countries. It also said that any agreement “should respect the UK’s autonomy as a third country and not require the UK to follow EU standards”.

In contrast, the EU position was that while it envisaged open market access for bilateral road freight transport for EU and UK operators in each other’s territories, UK road haulage operators “should not be granted the same level of rights and benefits” as those enjoyed by EU hauliers when travelling within the territory of a member state or from one member state to another. (Known as ‘cabotage’ and ‘grand cabotage’ respectively). The EU also called for level playing field rules to apply to operators and drivers, including social rules, with requirements for non-regression on current standards.

In March 2020, the EU published a draft agreement text. The UK published a draft agreement text in May 2020. Both documents reflected the two sides’ respective negotiating positions.

Progress of the talks

Transport has been the subject of talks during several rounds of the negotiations to date. However, it has been reported that road haulage in particular has remained a point of friction in recent weeks.

On 2 September 2020, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, elaborated on the EU’s reservations about the UK’s requests in this area during a speech at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin. He noted that while the UK wanted a “clean break” from the EU, this did not appear to extend to areas such as transport in which British negotiators were “still seeking continuity”. Arguing that UK demands on road haulage were too close to single market rights, Mr Barnier said:

The UK Government is still looking to keep the benefits of the EU and of the single market, without the obligations. The UK often says it would be in the EU’s interest to grant it a special status in these strategic areas of cooperation [transport, energy, goods conformity assessments and on aspects of police and judicial cooperation]. But, frankly speaking: is it really in the EU’s long-term economic interest?

For instance […] British proposals on road transport would allow British truckers to drive on EU roads without having to comply with the same working conditions as EU drivers.

In a statement on the eighth round of talks issued on 10 September 2020, Mr Barnier said that the UK “had not engaged on […] level playing field requirements” in connection with transport matters.

Speaking in early September 2020, Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, set out the Government’s position on the state of the negotiations generally. He is reported as having said the Government was “not going to accept provisions that lock [the UK] into the way the EU do things”.

Read more

Image by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash.