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Gatt unmoved by Busuttil’s call for bus fare review

Transport Minister Austin Gatt was unperturbed yesterday by Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil’s call for a rethink on the new bus fares as they could be illegal under EU law.

Dr Gatt’s ministry said Dr Busuttil’s comments had been “noted” but there were no plans to revise the fares established because the government had “contrasting” legal advice to the MEP’s and believed it was complying with the law.

“If it is not, there are means for that law to be enforced,” a spokesman for Dr Gatt said defiantly.

The fares, announced as part of the public transport reform planned for July, will be more expensive for non-residents who do not hold a Maltese identity card. Tourists will be charged €2.60 for a day ticket compared to €1.50 for residents. Week tickets will cost €6.50 for locals and €12 for non-residents.

Dr Busuttil said the fares should be reviewed, warning they could “well be illegal under EU law” because they discriminated against non-residents. The European Court of Justice, he said, had already rejected various arguments by other member states on similar lines.

He is not the first to hold that the fares could breach EU regulations because of discrimination with the hoteliers’ association making the argument vehemently in defence of the tourist industry.

But Dr Gatt argued that public transport services in a number of European countries charged different rates for residents and non-residents.

“Sticking to the most frequently known example of England, buses are free during off peak hours in England for anyone over 66, as long as they’re a resident of England. A Maltese tourist (or even a Scottish one for that matter) who otherwise satisfies all the eligibility criteria for the offer, is excluded on that basis,” a ministry spokesman said.

The Transport Ministry also supplied details of fares used in Estonia, Italy, Spain, Finland and Ireland.

In Tallinn (Estonia), public transport is cheaper “across the board” for residents of the city and this is done through the ID-ticket system, which uses national electronic cards to sell personalised fares. “A day card costs Kr45 for Tallinn residents and Kr55 for non-Tallinn residents when purchased through the ID-ticket system,” the spokesman said.

Student organisations last February protested against the new tariffs to the European Commission, claiming it discriminated against students from other parts of the country studying in Tallinn.

According to Estonian media, national organisation TÜÜL asked the Commission to take action against Estonia because of violation of EU regulations.

The ministry also pointed to the situation in Venice, where those who work, study or live in the region are eligible for discounted rates by buying a special card. Tourists can buy different transport cards depending on the duration of their stay.

Similar schemes are also used in Helsinki, in Finland, Ireland and Seville in Spain, according to the ministry.

Meanwhile, Malta’s Permanent Representative in Brussels, Richard Cachia Caruana said that while the EU prohibited discrimination on the basis of nationality, including indirect discrimination based on residence, the proposed measures could be acceptable due to “objective considerations and is proportionate to the legitimate aim of national provisions”.

“The government has clear objective considerations why residents should benefit from subsidised fares, namely the need to encourage people to leave their cars at home and take the bus where possible. These considerations are well known to everybody and we have seen a series of measures towards this end being rolled out over the past years. The subsidised public transport fares for residents are one of these measures. Each case needs to be assessed on its own merits in the light of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice,” he said.

The European Commission is waiting for more information from the Maltese government before it takes a stand on the issue but Mr Cachia Caruana said there had so far been no correspondence with the Commission on the issue.

Writing in his weekly column today, Dr Busuttil compares the bus fares issue to a case Italy lost at the European Court of Justice for granting free admission to Italian elderly residents who visit municipal museums and monuments but charging elderly tourists.

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