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Opinion digest: Putting Rail Baltica in its strategic context

Former EU transport commissioner and European Commission vice president, Siim Kallas.
Former EU transport commissioner and European Commission vice president, Siim Kallas. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ ERR)

In an opinion piece in daily Postimees, former EU commissioner Siim Kallas points out that Rail Baltica goes far beyond considerations of its route on Estonian soil, and the money the government will have to invest. On the contrary, there is a broader European meaning that includes considering the strategic situation of Estonia.

Kallas pointed out that Rail Baltica was a part of Europe’s biggest investment project to date, the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). Getting it approved had taken three years of difficult negotiations with European governments and the European Parliament. TEN-T and its financing model passed the European Parliament in 2013.

Rail Baltica is part of an exceptional European project

In his opinion piece, the former EU commissioner for transport explained why the decision was such an important matter. Generally, EU member states weren’t too interested in international infrastructure projects. Every one of them built its own bridges, tunnels, and roads. Kallas also hinted at the fact that infrastructure is often part of governments’ election promises, and difficult to coordinate for that reason.

France hadn’t been interested in improving roads across its border with Spain, Germany hadn’t been interested in work along its border with Austria and the Czech Republic, Kallas wrote. Poland had no interest in helping businesses and people get from the Baltic states to Central Europe. There were only few cases where member states had come to agreements. The Via Baltica project, the plan to extend and improve European route 67 from the Czech Republic to Estonia, which encountered massive local resistance in 2007, was a good example of how member states weren’t able to agree on things.

Only the European Union had been able to agree on a single strategy to create a transport network, Kallas wrote. The member state had imposed their own policies on it, and the European Commission together with the European Parliament had defended its strategic side. The result were ten strategic transport corridors through all of Europe.

The current compromise to fund Rail Baltica will be gone in the next budget period

Member states had invested substantially larger amounts of money in TEN-T mainly because the European Commission had managed to come up with a trustworthy project, and a plan to actually build it. The financing model, stocked with three times more money for the current budget period than previously, was set up in a way that the funding would actually be put to its intended purpose, Kallas wrote.

The fact that the project couldn’t be changed easily had its reasons in the financing model. It was important that the funds allocated to it would be used appropriately, and for this, the plan needed to be followed.

There was one important detail in the financing model, Kallas explained. Typically, the EU contributed up to 20% to infrastructure construction, but in the case of TEN-T and Rail Baltica, there was a special agreement between the EU’s Western and Eastern regions that meant that construction would be supported with up to 85% EU funding.

This decision had enormous strategic importance and meant a great concession by the Western member states of the European Union. While this was in effect now, it was unlikely that a similar arrangement would apply in the next budget period.

Narrow-sighted national interests don't consider broader implications

In Estonia, horror stories had been passed around how the national contribution to Rail Baltica would eat up all the funding for other projects as well. Kallas compared these stories to a similar matter, namely that the construction of the recently opened Estonian National Museum would leave all other museums without money. This hadn’t happened, the government had seen to it that the development of existing museums didn’t need to affect the project, Kallas wrote.

The railway was the strategic transport networks’ basis, Kallas wrote. Three quarters of Europe’s freight volume was moved around by truck or car, which polluted the air. Shifting those freight volumes to the railway was one of the EU’s transport policies’ aims. This was a preference for reasons of environmental concerns, Kallas wrote. On top of that, the railway was faster.

Though the motor transport companies had no reason to worry. Trains couldn’t compete with trucks in terms of flexibility and trustworthiness. In his opinion piece, Kallas pointed out that the European railway network was still fragmented, and that there was no single working system in place. TEN-T represented an attempt to change this.

Getting out of Russia's sphere of influence

Estonia was still a part of Russia’s infrastructure, Kallas wrote. Where Russia had tried to become more independent by building Nord Stream and its port in Ust-Luga, Rail Baltica was a similar effort by the EU. This European-gauge railway would increase Europe’s choices, and decrease its dependence on Russia, even more so as since the construction of Russia’s new ports in the Gulf of Finland, the transit business had broken away.

Russia wanted to increase its sphere of influence, which consisted of lots of different parts, Kallas stressed. Any Russian-gauge railway had to be a part of this, and Russia was particularly sensitive where this existing infrastructure was about to be replaced. Rail Baltica, in the eyes of the neighbor to the East, was just another attempt to narrow its sphere of influence.

Local objections and the future of Estonia's connection to Europe

The European Union would keep out of Estonia’s internal matters, such as the selection of Rail Baltica’s route on Estonian soil. But looking at a map, it was obvious why the proposed route was chosen. It was the most direct way to Europe. The EU was very flexible when it came to respecting the member state’s wishes, Kallas wrote, but these needed to remain within the strategic framework. What needed to be followed were the plan deadlines.

Objections to the project in Estonia have included plenty of different arguments. The most popular ones are that there will be no passengers for the line, and no freight volumes. The common approach in Estonia is to start by questioning the project’s financial feasibility, and whether or not it will ever break even. But large railway projects hardly ever do, they are built for the benefit of business and people over decades to come.

Issues of a broader context, like Kallas brought them up in his opinion piece, are hardly discussed at all.

Kallas’ criticism, then, is aimed mainly at all those who refuse to think about the future beyond their most immediate worries:

“Rail Baltica is a project for the future. Some say there is no future, that there’s only emptiness, dry sand and an empty field, clouds in the sky. No containers, no passengers. Only that cozy small town of Tallinn, where Estonians’ grandparents live. Is that a reasonable approach?”, Kallas asked.

Siim Kallas’ opinion piece was published on Postimees’ website on Nov. 16, 2016 (link in Estonian).

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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