It’s my enduring memory of European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean. I was a passenger on the EU Year of Rail publicity train – the Connecting Europe Express – between Kraków and Ljubljana. And who was there to greet the train’s arrival at Ljubljana station – none other than Vălean. Who had taken a plane to get there from Brussels. A podium was set up for her to give a speech beside the platforms so everyone could pat themselves on the back about the arrival of the train. It is hard to think of something about international railways as divorced from the reality as this.
The problem here is not Vălean per se – pretty much anyone who could have become European Commissioner for Transport would have behaved similarly. Flights whenever you want them, no questions asked about the costs, are comfortable. Chauffeur driven cars to and from meetings shelter you from inclement weather, and, well, from reality.
All of this starts much earlier in a politician’s career in elected office. There are first term MEPs I know who have grown comfortable with these benefits of the job, even though those benefits directly contradict the ethics espoused during their election campaigns. A politician senior enough to become a Commissioner is going to have at least a decade of these comforts behind them.
Should a message from the real world somehow puncture the bubble – an annoying blogger sends loads of postcards for example – then there is a bland response, that everything is immensely complicated, needs time for change to be made, that in the future everything will indeed improve (I received such an emailed response to my postcards from Vălean’s head of cabinet).
Member States of the EU are always happy with a Commissioner that changes as little as possible, and MEPs – who themselves have only slightly more grasp of the problems with transport issues on the ground than the Commissioner does – lack the determination to punish anything except really bad behaviour. Just not being much good is not going to solicit a sanction of any sort.
That is why I am not hopeful for any change in 2024.
After the European Parliament elections in June a new European Commission will be selected sometime in the autumn, and approved by the Parliament. If Vălean continues in the Commission it will not be with the Transport portfolio, so the brief will pass to someone new. But for the past two decades no one has really wanted to be Commissioner for Transport – it’s one of the lower profile portfolios. You’re unlikely to get a character with edge (the style of Thierry Breton) for the job.
The party political colour of whoever is appointed does not really matter that much (although avoiding someone from a populist party would of course be healthy) as decisions in the Commission are taken by consensus. I would simply like to have a European Commissioner for Transport who was self aware enough to try to understand what they can do in the role, and to seek to understand the reality on the ground – and that in my work would be with a focus on cross border railways, although I suspect such an approach would not go amiss in other transport sectors either.
Imagine a Commissioner who went to examine the broken rail infrastructure in border regions. Wasn’t scared to miss meetings because their trains were late, and used that to tell a story. Was ready to sit down with regional decision makers to talk though border transport problems these people are incapable of solving on their own. Made it their core purpose to put themselves on the side of public transport users and freight shippers who need railways to work better – something we all need because of the transition required due to climate change.
It would not even be that hard to do this. It’d even be popular.
But can I see it happening? No.
We’ll instead get some strategies, some concepts, some packages, maybe if we’re lucky some reasonable Regulations or Directives. It will not be actively bad, but nor will it solve most of the problems on the ground either.
And 5 years from now, as I am today, I will still be fighting my way to my destination with delayed and cancelled trains, and the chauffeur driven limousine will whisk Vălean’s successor to their next meeting, and the step change we need in EU railway policy will still not have happened.