It was an issue which wouldn’t go away, and it rocked France for months on end: the ecotax. This duty on trucks, based on the polluter pays principle, was finally abandoned in autumn 2016, in the face of popular pressure. Could it soon be back? This is not completely out of the question, at least in a different but still recognizable form! At any rate, that is what the new President of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in France is hoping for. Alain Rousset is considering a tax on trucks which drive through this key region, a corridor for trade between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. But not just any trucks: only those with foreign number plates.
To properly understand where this proposal is coming from, we must consider the geography of Nouvelle-Aquitaine: France’s largest region – created on 1 January 2016 by bringing together the former regions of Aquitaine, Limousin, and Poitou-Charentes – has very heavy traffic on its major roads. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the region is a major summer and winter holiday destination with its mountain and seaside resorts. Furthermore, the only way on land to Spain and Portugal is through the region. Route Nationale 10, the free alternative to the A10 motorway, is always packed with trucks, 80% of which are foreign.
“A measure which is impossible to implement”
The region’s objective would be, therefore, to tax trucks from countries outside France, with the aim of giving itself the means of fighting pollution and promoting the development of rail transport. It would also discourage certain hauliers from driving through the region, as such a tax would reduce their profits to close to zero (although this is never officially mentioned).
“It would definitely be a good thing – it would put French and European hauliers on a more level footing,” a representative of a hauliers’ union from Nouvelle Aquitaine told Fleet Street. “Currently, French hauliers are taking a major hit from the 4 cent per litre increase in the price of diesel, implemented in two phases since the start of 2016. Foreign drivers refuel in other countries, so they have a head start. The only problem is it’s impossible to implement,” he laments. “First there are practical difficulties: how would French lorries be sorted from foreign ones, how would the tax be gathered, etc. But more than anything else, there are legal difficulties: it would completely fly in the face of the principle of the free movement of goods within the European Union. It can’t be implemented,” he warns.
An increasingly divided Europe
Indeed, from a legal perspective, it is difficult to imagine singling out foreign trucks, even though the suggestion of the idea is consistent with what we touched upon in our article about the rise of protectionist policies. In practice, however, the solution already exists in Germany or in Belgium, for example. In Belgium, all trucks on the roads must be equipped with a working On Board Unit (OBU) which calculates how many kilometres the vehicle has covered starting from toll booths. The data is sent to a billing centre via an integrated SIM card. Then, the haulier receives an itemized bill.
But even without singling out trucks in terms of their country of origin, such a measure represents a step towards the breakdown of a ‘common area’, subject to the same rules and taxes. If the idea was put into practice, first in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, then elsewhere in France and other countries further down the line, it represents another challenge to those who continue to believe that Europe remains on the same path.