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EU action on bus fares

The European Commission is to launch formal legal proceedings against Malta over Arriva’s “discriminatory” bus fares, The Sunday Times has learnt.

Other price models meet the Maltese objectives and do not infringe EU law

It comes after months of probes, parliamentary questions and complaints from foreigners in Malta.

Commission sources told The Sunday Times that a letter of formal notice – the first of a three-pronged legal process – was sent to Malta last month asking the Government and Arriva to change the “discriminatory” bus fare system as it is currently infringing EU rules.

When the Arriva service was launched in July 2010, Maltese residents were charged less than non-residents.

This system was lambasted by non-Maltese nationals, insisting the system was discriminatory and did not comply with EU rules.

They relayed their complaints to Brussels, while MEPs, particularly from the UK and Ireland, constantly asked for explanation.

The Government insisted it was doing nothing wrong, since the difference was based on residence rather than nationality.

Following a thorough investigation, the EU executive has decided the bus fare system infringes EU law and should be replaced.

A senior Commission official told this newspaper that the letter from Brussels told the Maltese authorities the scheme amounts to “indirect discrimination based on nationality of EU citizens who have used their right to move and reside freely within the Union, and where applicable, their right to receive services, right to free movement of persons and right to free movement of capital under the EU Treaty”.

“We told Malta that this refers particularly to tourists, non-resident job-seekers and non-resident house owners who reside either temporarily or irregularly in Malta or have not yet managed to acquire Maltese residency.”

Asked what the Commission expects from Malta after the infringement procedures, the official said it must change the Arriva structure.

“At this stage, the Commission would like Malta to change the rules regarding fares in public bus transport so as to allow non-resident Union citizens to benefit from the same fares as Maltese residents. Other pricing models both meet the objectives pursued by the Maltese authorities and do not infringe EU law,” the official said.

Malta has two months to reply to the Commission’s formal infringement. If the Commission is not satisfied with the reply, it may move to the second stage – a reasoned opinion – prior to taking the issue to the European Court of Justice.

The Government had already been warned over this issue by Nationalist Party deputy leader Simon Busuttil, who is an MEP.

In an article published in The Times, Dr Busuttil had appealed to the Government to re-think the fares as “EU law did not appear to support differentiation between residents and tourists”.

But Transport Minister Austin Gatt – politically responsible for the system – told The Times he had received “contrasting legal advice”.

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