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Brussels still undecided on new bus fares

Brussels has not yet decided whether Arriva’s new bus price structure was compatible with EU law.

The European Commission has so far adopted a wait-and-see approach on the matter though the issue had immediately raised eyebrows in Brussels when Arriva announced a different price structure between holders of Maltese ID cards and non-residents.

According to the new price structure, those who do not hold a Maltese ID card – mainly tourists who happen to be EU citizens – have to pay an extra 40 per cent to use the same public transport system offered to the Maltese.

EU law does not permit discrimination based on nationality although it does allow different price structures when based on residence, an argument made by the government to defend the system.

Following various complaints, last November the Commission launched an inquiry to determine whether Arriva’s pricing policy was discriminatory. However, despite pressure from British and Irish MEPs to conclude its findings before the start of the new service today, the Commission has still not decided on the issue.

Direct parliamentary questions on the issue tabled by British MEPs Ashley Fox and Linda McAvon and Irish Proisnias De Rossa have remained unanswered.

The Maltese government again insisted the structure is not discriminatory and will continue to defend its arguments with the EU executive.

“Malta has informed the Commission that the bus service reform, including the proportionate nature of fares, is part of a larger policy to address congestion and health problems.

“This reform also takes into account the geographical and infrastructural difficulties in providing an efficient public transport system on the islands of Malta and Gozo,” a government spokesman said.

“Malta has considered different options to achieve its objectives; however, all studies indicate that other alternative methods would not be successful. Malta will continue to liaise with the Commission to ensure its arguments are fully understood,” he said.

The Commission said last November it was seeking to examine whether all the elements of the price scheme were compliant with the principle of non-discrimination (direct or indirect) on grounds of nationality as provided for in Article 18 of the EU Treaty.

A letter was sent to the Maltese authorities at the begining of January asking for clarification on issues such as the reasons for the differences in fares, what the distinction is based on, and how the lower fares can be obtained.

Malta had immedietly responded to the Commission, insisting that the new tariff system is fully in line with EU laws.

In 2003, the European Court of Justice ruled against the Italian government in a case initiated by the Commission that was similar to the Maltese bus case.

The case concerned preferential rates given to elderly Italian residents aged 60 to 65 for admission into museums in Venice, Treviso and Padua, while EU non-residents in Italy were being charged extra.

The ECJ had ruled the price structure as discriminatory.

“Indirect discrimination based on residence which produced the same result as that imposed by nationality is also prohibited,” the court held.

Should the Commission con­clude there is discrimination, the Maltese authorities will be invited to change the tariff structure, which could mean higher prices for Maltese bus users.

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