Compromise over trucks crossing through Austria

BRUSSELS – European Union nations agreed on Tuesday on new rules to limit pollution from trucks crossing Austria’s Alpine highways, overcoming objections from Italy and Austrian demands for even tougher restrictions. The agreement «takes into account the sensitive environment of the Alpine region as well as the principle of a single market,» said Danish Transport Minister Flemming Hansen, who chaired a two-hour meeting that broke months of deadlock on the issue. Ministers interrupted the EU’s traditional year-end holiday for the New Year’s Eve talks to find a compromise between Austria’s demands for greater restrictions to limit pollution from transalpine truck traffic and its neighbors’ calls for haulers to be granted greater access. Austria rejected the compromise, but found no support for its demands for tougher rules. Italy, backed by the Netherlands and Belgium, sought a greater relaxation of restrictions on truckers but failed to muster enough votes to block the deal. However, the agreement still needs to be approved by the European Parliament and will need a final approval by governments if the Parliament introduces amendments. The agreement will extend for three more years a deal Austria concluded before joining the EU in 1995 to prevent its highways becoming clogged with trucks belching noxious fumes. The agreement had been due to expire on Dec. 31, 2003. Under the deal the cleanest, most modern trucks will be able to cross Austria freely, while some of vehicles that produce most pollution will be banned. Others will continue to be subjected to the current system, where drivers need to purchase «ecopoints,» granted by the Austrian authorities, which allow a limited number of journeys. Austria says such rules are essential to protect its environment. The Alpine nation occupies a vital central position on north-south road routes in the EU. Its role as a transport hub will become even more important when Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and five other eastern European nations join the Union in 2004. Italy led those who complained Austria’s restrictions do unfair harm to their economies and violate the notion of a single, border-free EU market. However, it was unable to block the deal after Germany and Greece agreed to back the compromise. Under the ecopoints system, drivers caught in Austria without a permit showing the required number of points face fines. To encourage the development of cleaner vehicles, newer, less-polluting trucks need fewer ecopoints. The number of ecopoints available next year is just 40 percent of the level in 1991 when the system began. Under Tuesday’s agreement, the number of points will be cut further, up to 2006.

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