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Belgium’s truckers’ rights puzzle

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In a divisive European debate over truckers’ rights that’s pitting West against East, Belgium has broken ranks with its allies in an attempt to straddle both sides — a move trade unions warn will backfire on its own industry.

Ahead of new EU rules approved in July, countries from the bloc’s richer north and west fought for strong measures regulating drivers’ rest times, pay and conditions for operating in another country — arguing they were necessary to stop a race to the bottom fueled by cheap competition from Central and Eastern Europe.

Countries from the region slammed the measures as protectionist, and in October seven of them — Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Romania — lodged challenges at the Court of Justice of the EU.

Now, Belgium has said it will support Malta’s challenge of one part of the Mobility Package — despite being an enthusiastic backer of the overall legislation.

The challenged measure imposes a four-day “cooling-off” period after a trucker moves cargo within another country, a perk known as “cabotage.” During that cooling-off time, truckers can’t return for more work within the same country.

That’s a disproportionate burden for smaller EU members, whose drivers habitually cross into neighboring countries, Belgium argues.

The Mobility Package will improve working conditions for truck drivers and level the playing field in the road transport sector, but this “one element … is a thorn in our side,” Flemish Mobility Minister Lydia Peeters, who heads up Belgium’s intervention at the court, said in an emailed reply.

The country has decided to fight “this protectionist measure in a bid to prevent bankruptcies in the sector,” Peeters said.

But the decision to join the court challenge over this specific issue is angering trade unions, who warn that it could unravel the whole truckers’ rights package — something they say would do far greater damage to the industry.

Getting rid of the cooling-off period would “open the door for more organized social dumping from letterbox companies, often from Eastern Europe,” said Frank Moreels, who heads the European Transport Workers’ Federation and a Belgian trade union’s transport arm, BTB, referring to companies that set up a fictional presence in a country to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Belgian transport firms can shake up their business plans — alternating operations to France, Germany or Spain, for example — to mitigate the impact of the cabotage rule, but they’ll face “merciless” competition from Central European operators if the whole Mobility Package falls apart, according to Moreels.

Peeters, meanwhile, argued that while there are other measures in the Mobility Package that will prevent drivers from using cabotage rules to systematically work far from home, the cooling-off period will, above all, hurt Belgian companies that are active in neighboring countries.

Belgium’s challenging straddle

Under pressure from cheap competition on longer distances, Belgian companies have specialized in short-haul operations in neighboring countries. Three-quarters of Belgian truckers’ cabotage trips are currently in France — typically on the way back from a delivery — so drivers can earn more on a trip, said Philippe Degraef, director of transport operators group Febetra.

When that option is taken away, “there’s a chance they’ll stop going to France altogether,” he warned.

Shaking up the business model may be doable for larger firms, but it’s much more difficult for smaller Belgian businesses with five or six trucks. “The average SME can’t make that puzzle so easily,” Degraef said.

Transport operators stress they’re not in favor of free-for-all cabotage: Rather than deleting the cooling-off measure entirely, they only want the restriction to be lifted on the condition a driver returns to company headquarters following work abroad. 

“Our position really falls midway between an exaggerated regulation and a total liberalization,” said Degraef.

The government is trying to finesse the issue.

“Belgium is, and remains, a strong supporter of the Mobility Package,” said Peeters. “We only take issue with one small provision that has far-reaching consequences for our carriers.” The cooling-off measure “is a protectionist measure and not a social measure” and scrapping it won’t affect the package’s “other important social achievements,” she argued.

Trade unions say that’s an impossible balance to strike.

Last year’s agreement was “the result of years-long palavering and negotiating,” said Moreels, noting trade unions had bargained for much stronger action.

The fact that Belgium is joining Malta’s court challenge “is very worrying,” he added.

“Belgium may think it’s only one piece. But other countries have taken other parts of the package to the European court. The more pieces are put on the table, the fewer will remain at the end of the ride.”

Belgium’s move isn’t all that surprising, Degraef countered. At last year’s Council vote, the country backed the two other parts of the package but abstained on the “market access” chapter that includes the cooling-off measure. 

The court case is unlikely to be decided quickly, so Belgian operators initially don’t have much choice in dealing with the new rules, which are due to take effect next February. That will be “a heavy blow,” said Degraef.

Despite unions’ hopes that the reforms would go further, the overall package is a step forward in the fight against social dumping in the sector, said Moreels, arguing that transport workers’ trust in the EU is at stake.

“Our drivers …  load and unload in ports, go to companies, and they come across nothing but Romanian and Bulgarian drivers,” he said. “They talk with them and they know what they earn … They’re blaming Europe for the fact that pay and employment conditions are being undermined.”

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