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EU added value in cross-border mobility: creating the backbone of an EU transport infrastructure

For EU citizens one of the most visible examples of EU added value may well be the means they use, often on a daily basis, to get to work, to travel, to get goods and services delivered in the EU’s internal market: the physical infrastructure we use, often also co-financed by the EU. While for some this may trigger the thought of an occasional road to nowhere financed with EU funds, many will gladly use the numerous network corridors within regions and between regions and Member States, created thanks in part to EU initiatives. Going beyond stating the obvious, Dirk Beckers — Executive Director of the Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), and managing the bulk of the direct EU grants for transport infrastructure — explains how EU added value plays an essential role in INEA’s project selection and implementation, feeding back into policy-making and tying into different EU policy decisions for increased impact.

By Dirk Beckers, Executive Director of the Innovation and Networks Executive Agency

Initialising a European transport network

EU added value in transport can be defined and measured in several ways. Below I will focus on EU added value in transport infrastructure policy via the management of EU financial support for selected projects.

The development of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) is a main component of the European economic and social policy that dates back to the adoption of the Common Transport Policy. It has had a legal basis in the Treaties since 1957. Since the publication of the first TEN-T guidelines in 1996, the EU has shaped and strengthened the policy and financial framework to improve TEN-T planning and implementation. The network is organised in two ‘layers,’ the Core Network, which includes the most important connections and links the most important nodes, and the Comprehensive Network, which includes routes at regional and national level that feed into the Core Network. The network covers all European regions. Nine multi-modal Core Network Corridors passing through different Member States represent the backbone of the Core Network. They streamline and facilitate the coordinated development of the Core Network. Horizontal priorities, such as the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), the Motorways of the Sea (MoS), the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), Innovation and Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR), complement the network.

Figure 1 — The nine Core Network Corridors

Source: European Commission/INEA

Transport infrastructure projects

Each year public and private authorities invest considerable funds to build, improve and maintain transport infrastructure in order to cope with the growing transport needs of passengers and freight. The EU contributes to this effort by providing financial assistance to projects that demonstrate an EU added value, in particular a strong cross border dimension. Such infrastructure projects complete missing links or remove bottlenecks and therefore play an important role in realising the full potential of the EU’s internal market ambitions. The co-financing of these infrastructure projects brings considerable added value to the transport system, starting with the fact that without the EU contribution many of these major projects would not be implemented. The EU funding aims to fill-in the funding gap for those infrastructure projects with significant initial costs, beyond the promoters’ financing possibilities.

In addition, the EU’s funding focuses on projects where sustainability and respect for the environment are among the main objectives (see also Box 1). The Commission’s communication on the Green Deal calls for an accelerated shift to sustainable and smart mobility, with an emphasis on a drastic reduction in transport emissions.

Box 1 — Example of an action targeting environmental goals

The Connecting Europe Facility Action, ’Zero Emission Ferries — a green link across the Oresund’, supported the conversion of two ships, originally fuelled by heavy oil, to plug-in electric powered operation using batteries only, as well as the construction of the required power provision and charging installations. The Action has brought a more environmentally friendly solution to a very busy maritime link, connecting the Comprehensive TEN-T Network ports of Helsingör (Denmark) and Helsingborg (Sweden). Both ferry terminals are located in densely populated areas, so the Action has also contributed to significant improvements in air quality. It is estimated that in the first years of operation (since 2018) the CO2 emissions have been reduced by 16 000 tonnes. Further investments are planned.

Source: INEA

Environmental compliance is a prerequisite for any EU financial support for transport infrastructure projects and the modal shift to more environmentally friendly means of transport is among the main priorities and criteria for selecting projects. EU support accelerates the implementation of projects that produce significant socio-economic benefits, such as lower CO2 emissions, less congestion and reduced travel times and accidents.

Moreover, EU funding only partially covers the costs of these projects, thus triggering the mobilisation of additional financial resources towards the same objective, at EU level. This has a long-term impact on national strategies that is often neglected. Especially in the case of major, cross-border infrastructure projects, Member States increase their cooperation, exchange best practices and even align their infrastructure priorities in order to carry out a mutually beneficial investment which would not have materialised without the EU’s support.

A number of EU funding programmes and initiatives make financial support available to projects implementing the TEN-T. Among those, the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) is the EU funding instrument for strategic investment in transport, energy and digital infrastructure. In the transport sector, CEF is dedicated to the implementation of the TEN-T, with a total budget of €24.05 billion (of which €11.3 billion comes from the Cohesion Fund) for the period 2014–2020. CEF Transport also supports innovation in the transport system in order to improve the use of infrastructure, reduce the environmental impact of transport, enhance energy efficiency and increase safety.

CEF Transport funding supports works and studies for building new transport infrastructure or upgrading existing infrastructure. Since January 2014, 17 calls for proposals have been concluded, supporting 794 actions (many are still ongoing) with €21.0 billion in funding.

Figure 2 — State of CEF Transport portfolio — June 2020

Source: INEA

CEF Transport contributes to the decarbonisation of the European economy by investing heavily in environmentally friendly transport modes, including 323 railway, 66 inland waterway and 147 maritime actions across the EU. Investments in roads focus on cross-border and missing links, traffic management and alternative fuels. In air transport, CEF supports the deployment of the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR), thus increasing safety and sustainability, for example, by enabling airplanes to fly shorter routes.

INEA makes implementation happen

The Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA) manages almost the entire CEF grants for Transport, with the objective of assisting project promoters in the various stages of the projects’ lifecycle and contributing to their successful implementation. The deployment of large-scale infrastructure projects is a major challenge. Typically, these are long-term investment projects, involving many different actors and processes as well as a number of uncertainties. Rigorous preparation and well-elaborated planning as well as close and pro-active monitoring are key elements for successful implementation, in terms of quality, time and budget.

Throughout the projects’ lifecycle INEA’s objective is to provide services of added value, with a two-fold objective:

  • to implement projects that best serve the objectives of the TEN-T and;
  • to guarantee that EU funds are used in line with the applicable rules and the principles of sound financial management, ensuring that European taxpayers’ money is spent in the most efficient way.

Selection of projects

The selection of the best possible projects in order to meet the TEN-T objectives is a key element in the implementation process. The objective is to select projects that can be implemented within the desired timeline.

A decision on the allocation of billions of euros of taxpayers’ money for projects across the EU cannot be taken lightly. Projects must demonstrate a clear EU added value; this policy is also enshrined in the EU’s Financial Regulation (Articles 34(2) and 34(3)), which specifically requires an examination of whether EU funding adds value.

More concretely, the project selection is based on a two-stage evaluation process. In the first stage, at least three independent evaluators assess each proposal against the award criteria. The experts examine only the individual merits of each proposal and do not consider the total available budget when making their recommendations. This is the role of the next stage of the evaluation, steered by senior Commission officials. In this final stage, policy considerations complement the technical assessment so that the available budget is allocated to proposals with the highest EU added value in relation to the TEN-T policy objectives:

  • Which projects contribute the most to the completion of the Core Network by 2030 and the Comprehensive Network by 2050?
  • Which projects accelerate deployment of innovative solutions to reduce the environmental impact of transport?
  • Which projects are further enhancing interoperability and safety?

The replies to these questions shape the final list of proposals recommended for funding. For example, a project along the Core Network that eliminates a bottleneck on a cross-border section is considered to have greater EU added value compared to a national project that has a mainly regional impact.

Management of projects

INEA monitors closely the progress of each project, mainly through periodic reporting and continuous contacts with the project promoters. Once deviations are observed, these are assessed in order to find the best mitigation measures, in cooperation — in most cases in agreement — with the project promoters and the Member State(s) concerned. Such measures often concern the extension of the duration of the project, in order to allow its completion and/or the reduction of its scope and the related EU budget. If serious deviations are observed, the Agency initiates the termination of the project.

For all projects, including those that are implemented without any issues, INEA has put in place a detailed system of ex-ante and ex-post controls in order to verify all project costs for which an EU contribution is required. In parallel, the progress/completion of the works is verified by on-site visits and other means of verification, while in certain cases the certification of the costs by the Member State(s) concerned is also required.

This is a fundamental task for the Agency that ensures the best possible use of EU funds. In addition, this close monitoring allows the Agency to recover unused EU funds in good time and to re-inject them into the programme. This is a real added-value service contributing significantly to maximising the absorption and the utilisation of the available EU budget to the benefit of citizens. In the current CEF transport programme — amounting to over €24 billion for the period 2014–2020, INEA has already re-injected the amount of €2.9 bilion, allowing more transport projects with a better EU added value level to benefit from the EU’s financial assistance.

Feedback into policy

Another key element in the work of the Agency is close cooperation with the different Commission services. During implementation, INEA informs/consults the Commission’s services on every important decision, to ensure political awareness and/or seek guidance. Periodically INEA also prepares a dedicated report on completed projects, to inform the Commission’s services of their accomplishment.

This direct cooperation with the Commission ensures that implementation follows closely the policy objectives and that any deviations are reported back to the policy level in good time for possible action. This makes sure that policy decision makers are always aware of the situation with regard to the implementation of the projects, and this significantly shortens the time required to respond to needs and brings real added value at all stages of programme management.

Synergies between H2020 and CEF

In addition to CEF, INEA manages those parts of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (H2020) related to transport. With a portfolio of over 300 grants, INEA manages research and innovation projects in a broad range of transport modes and sectors, such as green vehicles (see Box 2), aviation, waterborne transport, urban mobility, infrastructure, batteries and safety, among others.

Exploiting its privileged position of managing both the CEF and H2020 transport programmes, INEA is working intensively on the identification and promotion of synergies between both programmes. Beyond the natural progression from research to deployment at project level, opportunities for synergies can be created through appropriate programme and policy design.

Box 2 — Electric vehicles

The NeMo H2020 project has developed a pan-European eRoaming network to help electro-mobility providers standardise their services across Europe. In parallel, the EVA+ CEF project has built a wide network of fast-charging stations in Italy and Austria.

Both projects contributed to making electric cars more attractive for European citizens. CEF is supporting around 13 000 electric charging points across the network.

For this, INEA is active in fostering a dialogue between the Commission’s services, project promoters and other relevant stakeholders to highlight potential areas for synergies. Several beneficiaries from H2020 transport grants are now developing or implementing work on the TEN-T corridors. The H2020 project Infra4Dfuture, managed by INEA, is a good example of this. Moreover, the CEF project FENIX in the area of transport logistics builds upon the platforms developed by the H2020-funded projects AEOLIX and SELIS.

By promoting projects that complement or build on each other, INEA brings additional added value to the EU’s funding in terms of achieving greater impact and efficiency and fostering cooperation among different stakeholders. This also assists in aligning policies and programmes, with the aim of maximising results.

Focus on EU added value from project concept to delivery of results

The EU has set up a robust framework for the development of an efficient transport infrastructure, which is the backbone of any sustainable transport system. In this respect, EU funding, such as the CEF programme, provides considerable support to project promoters and accelerates implementation, thus bringing tangible added value to the process for EU citizens, who benefit from improved modes of transport.

This added value is further enforced by the project implementation mechanisms provided by INEA, in managing CEF and parts of H2020. INEA’s close monitoring of project implementation ensures transparency and sound financial management, while maximising the use of EU funds, to the benefit of citizens. In addition, through systematic feedback to policy and promotion of synergies, INEA contributes to shaping future programmes and assists policymaking.

In view of the next multiannual financial framework, INEA is prepared to continue its role in providing high quality support to project promoters and policy makers, with the aim of achieving the objectives of the TEN-T, and of providing the best possible EU added value for all citizens and businesses.

This article was first published on the 3/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



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