Brussels takes aim at the Netherlands for planning direct award to NS
The European Commission is starting an infringement procedure against the Netherlands for “failing to correctly apply” EU regulations on public transport, the European body announced on Friday. The Commission takes issue with plans for a direct award of the concession contract of the main railway net to incumbent operator Dutch Railways (NS).
The contract that the Dutch government aims to award to NS starts on 1 January 2025, but is planned to already be awarded before the end of this year. From December 2023 onwards, the provision of the EU regulation that allows such a direct award will cease to apply. After that, the window for a direct award will all but close, unless in “limited, well-defined circumstances”.
The Commission suspects that the Dutch intend to give the award before the December 24 deadline as a means to ‘circumvent’ the new regulations, saying that the long period between the deadline and the start of the contract at the beginning of 2025 is “without objective justification”.
By sending a formal notice to the Dutch government, the Commission has opened a path that might see the Netherlands end up in the European court. The Hague has two months to respond to the notice and “address the shortcomings raised by the Commission”. Complicating things is the fact that the government collapsed last week over immigration, casting a cloud over which decision will be given the go-ahead and which not.
The Dutch government, NS and the unions are in favour of a direct award, as it can better safeguard the reliability of services, they say. The state secretary for infrastructure and water management Vivianne Heijnen says this view is widely held and supported in parliament, too. In comments to Dutch sister publication SpoorPro, the ministry said that plans for a direct award will be presented to parliament in August and debated in the following month with a view to wrap up the direct award to NS in December.
Earlier in the year, there had already been legal wrangling over the issue, with the Federation of Transport Companies (FMN) – which includes the likes of other operators Arriva, Transdev and Keolis – objecting to the Dutch government’s aim to grant the incumbent operator the main railway network, without a chance to compete. The FMN finds ALLRAIL, which advocates market opening for rail in Europe, on its side. This group has been keeping a close watch of the situation not just in the Netherlands, but also in Belgium. There, the federal government is targeting another direct award for NMBS/SNCB.
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