The new legislation on haulage road transport, limiting East European companies’ access to Western European markets, is perceived by many in the East as yet another attempt to prevent citizens of new EU members states from reaping the benefits of the Single Market.
“Today we are witnessing a huge tragedy.” Peter Lundgren, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, was not speaking here about the dire consequences of Brexit, the EU’s current blockbuster drama. Nor was his statement provoked by Europe’s inability to intervene and prevent the bloody civil war in Syria.
Lundgren’s disenchantment was motivated by something completely different: а failed vote on March 27 to adopt amendments to the so-called Mobility Package 1, an EU legislation regulating lorry drivers’ working times and remuneration. The amendments ended up being adopted a week later.
At first glance, the topic wouldn’t seem to call for such a dramatic tone. However, Mobility Package 1 has been one of the most controversial pieces of EU legislation in recent times. It hasn’t attracted the worldwide attention which the copyright reform received, since that involved Brussels’s attempt to rein in global giants like Google and Facebook; and the disputes have never reached the crescendo of the migration debate. But in the last two years, since the European Commission proposed them, the new rules for road haulage transport have pitted East against West, exposing once again a rift between the more affluent countries trying to protect their well-paid jobs, and countries from the former Soviet bloc trying to catch-up at all costs.
What the Mobility Package is all about
In a nutshell, the new legislation limits East European companies’ access to well-paying West European markets. Hauliers will need to make sure that their drivers return home and get rest at least once every four weeks (the European Parliament supported an amendment that required the lorries to return back to their home-base as well), which means that companies from peripheral countries like Bulgaria or Latvia can operate continuously for no more than two weeks in the profitable French or Dutch markets.
In addition, drivers need to be paid the local minimum wage (if it is higher than the one in their native countries) as soon as they cross the border, depriving East European haulers and drivers of their cost advantage. East European companies have the benefit of employees who are relatively cheap, mainly because they require lower social security payments in their home countries and are willing to spend long hours on the road, sometimes up to three months.
The cost advantage of course comes with an unpleasant twist – lorry drivers rarely spend the night in a hotel, they rather sleep in their truck cabins and often go back to their families only once in three months, when their required mandatory leave should be taken under the current legislation. But many employees take these jobs because they pay well – at least by the standards of their home countries.