Eurotunnel on track for Brexit disruption as talks falter

Land Transport

Source: Euractiv, 2020-09-24

A report published on Tuesday (22 September) accused the UK government of failing to ensure that the cross-Channel rail link can continue to operate after the Brexit transition is over, while EU officials are yet to confirm their plans for the tunnel.

According to the UK European Scrutiny Committee report, the lack of progress in brokering a new agreement covering the Channel Tunnel raises “concerns about the safe operation of the Tunnel after 31 December given that most EU law will no longer apply in the UK.”

It is the UK’s only surface transport link with mainland Europe, used by roughly 11m passengers every year, and is governed by the Anglo-French Canterbury Treaty, which will need to be amended to reflect the new legal order. 

The European Commission wants the revamped treaty to empower tunnel authorities to apply EU law on both sides of the rail link, disputes to be referred to the European Court of Justice and, as a nuclear option, France would be allowed to take unilateral action to regain its part of the tunnel.

“Despite confirming its opposition to the proposals, the government has yet to put forward suggestions for an alternative post-transition safety framework,” the committee’s report warns, adding that time is running out to reach a common agreement.

The report also warns that “without an agreement on the prevailing safety regime applicable to the Tunnel, there is the real possibility of significant disruption to its operation.” 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted that the ECJ should have no influence over the UK once the Brexit transition is completed, which has proved to be a sticking point in ongoing negotiations in a range of areas.

Although there has been little need of a dispute resolution mechanism in the 25 years since the tunnel opened, the fact that EU law will no longer apply on the other side of the Channel means that the likelihood of deploying one will increase.

But it is not just EU and UK negotiators that are at loggerheads, the bloc’s institutions are still yet to agree on what mandate to grant France before talks on an updated treaty can even begin.

The European Parliament was meant to vote last week on the issue but because of an eleventh-hour change by the Commission to the proposal, on giving the ECJ exclusive power to rule on disputes, the text was pulled before MEPs could cast their ballot.

That has created further delay, as the Parliament’s legal committee will now have to have its say on the proposal, currently scheduled for 28 September, before the next plenary session in October can put eyes on it again.

France will only be able to negotiate a deal based on that mandate, so if a fresh UK proposal is finally unveiled, which would likely suggest that an authority other than the ECJ be included in the deal, the European Council would have to sign off on new instructions.

Further uncertainty and delays risk making life even more difficult for high-speed train operator Eurostar, which has been forced to scale back its services significantly due to UK government travel restrictions and quarantine measures in place in France and Belgium.

The firm nevertheless confirmed in September that a planned merger with Franco-Belgian operator Thalys will go ahead next year.

In addition to passengers and vehicles, the tunnel also acts as a thoroughfare for some 1.3m tonnes of freight annually.

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