Anyone who drives for a living in the UK but who makes trips to continental Europe cannot have failed to notice the many changes that have come into force since new Brexit regulations came into being. There are plenty of routes from the UK into the European Union for road haulage firms and couriers to use but the main ones are located in the South of England and connect across the English Channel to France. Although the EU accepted freight from road hauliers after the UK departed the EU’s customs union without checks during the so-called transitionary period, this came to an end early in 2021. After that, customs officials in European Union states, including France, have been obliged to make checks on all goods coming over the border, including those being couriered by owner-drivers and small-scale haulage firms. In other words, the rules have not just affected large shipping companies and freight forwarding firms managing the transit of shipping containers.
In the main, shipping goods from the UK into the continental EU has caused some headaches for exporters as they have often needed to upgrade their processes. The only exception to this is in Northern Ireland where goods in transit between the North and the South remain unhindered by the same customs rules. For couriers and owner-drivers, sorting out export paperwork so that goods can get into the EU is not something they have to worry about, generally speaking. However, the knock-on effect of having so many more inspections and paperwork checks taking place close to or at the border has caused significant delays for hauliers of all types – both large and small operators.
To be clear, the numbers of road freight shipments heading to and from the EU over the English Channel hasn’t changed greatly in the last twelve months. What has caused delays, however, has been the number of checks that customs officials have needed to make. And when export documentation hasn’t been quite right, these have not been cursory checks, either. Anyone who has driven from the UK to Europe for work has had to get used to longer than usual queues as often overworked customs officials and port authority workers have struggled to keep road haulage routes operational. However, recent news from the European Parliament may mean that the situation with road haulage and couriered freight may soon get easier – or less costly, at least – for drivers once they have got through the current bottlenecks at Dover, Folkestone, Newhaven and Portsmouth.
In February, the European Parliament approved some proposed rule changes for the way in which road haulage and couriered freight would be allowed to operate within the trading bloc. This will affect all of the owner-driver operators within the EU but also change the way British drivers can access European roads. The approval of the European Parliament does not necessarily mean that the new rules will immediately apply, however, because member states can review them within the next two-year window. That said, many in Brussels now expect road haulage to become a more affordable option within a matter of weeks thanks to the overhaul of the system used to charge road haulage operators and van couriers. So, what are the proposed changes exactly?
Firstly, under the new rules proposed by the European Parliament, road charges for commercial vehicles will move from their current charging system. For some time, this has been a time-based system that is predicated on the concept that the more a vehicle drives, the more it pollutes. However, this does not take into account the distance that might be travelled within a given time frame, something that is especially important to drivers who are held in slow-moving queues as they wait to access ports like Calais or Dunkirk, for example. Instead, during a plenary session of the parliament, a move to a distance-based charging system is now expected to come into force. According to some involved in the discussions, this move will make the polluter pays principle that the EU wants to promote work better in the foreseeable future.
In the last parliamentary session, politicians in Brussels gave the green light to make the necessary legislative changes in an agreement that has been struck with EU governments across the trading bloc. Importantly, the update on the rules – ones that set out exactly what sort of charges member states can impose on road haulage companies and van drivers – could mean alterations to current road tolls by as soon as mid-March 2022. It is not just trucks, lorries and vans that are likely to be affected by the changes as new charging systems are introduced by member states, either. Bus, coach and even passenger car drivers using trans-European transport network roads are all likely to see different and potentially fairer toll charges being applied for accessing the fastest and most economical routes.
As many drivers who make their way through continental Europe will know, some countries, like France, do charge quite high sums to access their autoroute networks while other states levy lower fees and some nothing at all. Under the rule changes, EU member states will not be forced to charge commercial vehicle drivers to access their trunk roads. Nevertheless, once fully ratified, any country within the EU that wishes to introduce such fees – or to change their current charging system – will need to follow the new EU rules based on distances travelled rather than time spent on the road.
In several European Union countries, the current road charging system uses the time-based model, something that tends to be referred to on the continent as ‘vignettes’. The idea behind the move from vignettes to a miles-driven system is not only to better reflect the polluter-pays or the user-pays approach, however. Another idea behind the move is to stop penalising drivers for taking breaks on their journey to access roadside services. Under the vignette system, time was the guiding principle for drivers meaning that, in effect, drivers were economically encouraged to continue driving even if they would be better off taking a break. As such, the shift in charging emphasis is also being hailed by some in the EU as an important safety measure that will not just benefit road haulage companies and couriers but all road users.
Although MEPs have now secured the new rules that mean members states can start making changes to the old vignette system soon, there is no way the Parliament can force changes in the immediate future without a further review. Nevertheless, it is expected that most European countries will start to phase out their vignettes for heavy commercial vehicles, such as trucks, lorries and buses, across the main parts of the trans-European transport network within the next few years. Much of the trans-European transport network that lies in the periphery of Europe is rarely accessed by UK-based drivers anyway. Therefore, the bulk of the expected changes are expected to affect British drivers working in Europe sooner rather than later. For example, the North Sea-Mediterranean corridor is likely to be one of the first major parts of the trans-European transport network to see these changes introduced. In some places, it may be possible for member states to still retain distance-based vignettes for specific parts of the road network. To do so, however, they will have to prove that a new charging method would disproportionately affect their expected income stream, something that is only likely to affect Eastern European haulage routes, according to industry commentators.
Van drivers can expect some different rules to apply depending on where in Europe they are delivering or collecting consignments, too. Under the new regulations, vignettes will still be valid for vans but for shorter periods of time, perhaps one day, one week or even as much as ten days, depending on the location. Some member states are likely to introduce price caps that can be applied to both private van owners and passenger car drivers. The idea here is to try and make sure that occasional drivers are treated fairly throughout the EU and that only frequent commercial users of the road network pay the largest toll fees. Under the new rules, EU states that are willing to charge lighter vehicles – like vans and minibuses – differently from the system for lorries and trucks will still have the option to choose between time-based or distance-based charging models.
According to one MEP involved in the changes, Giuseppe Ferrandino, the elimination of the vignette system for heavy road vehicles, at least, will allow the EU to standardise its system for charging commercial road users that is currently excessively inconsistent and fragmented. Mr Ferrandino went on to say that he thought the changes would encourage the world of road freight to invest in the use of cleaner vehicles with the latest green technologies in the near future. In a similar move, EU countries will soon have to also set different road charging rates for trucks and buses based on their carbon while the environmental performance of vans and minibuses will affect the way they are charged from 2026 onwards.