Inland Waterways International has constantly supported Europe’s new canal, the 107-km ‘missing link’ for high-capacity barges and push-tows between the Seine basin and the main interconnected network from Northern France through the Rhine to Switzerland and through the German waterways to the rest of Europe.

seinenordeuropeThe French Government insists that the project will go ahead, with works starting in 2017, but the main stakeholders in the project are increasingly disturbed by the shortfall in funding because two authorities – the Île de France regional council and the council of the Nord département – have to date failed to sign the funding agreement for their shares of the investment. Their hesitation may be explained by technical budgeting issues, but is no less worrying only 6 weeks before the Public Project Implementation Company (société de projet) must be in place and operational. That is also a technical issue, related to the terms of the decree which set up the company in April 2016.

The image today is of a project that is ‘grinding to a start’, with political issues at two levels, which I’ll come back to later. But on the key issue of funding, the facts are simple. Until recently the cost of the project was estimated at 4.5 billion euros. This is to be funded 40% by the EU (1.8 billion), 22% by the State (1 billion), 22% by the regions and départements (1 billion) and the remaining 0.7 billion covered by borrowing. The regional authorities have mostly voted their contributions, with two exceptions: 210 million euros from the Île de France region, and 200 million from the Nord département. That is a shortfall of 9% of the total budget.

The situation became more critical on November 15, when the Secretary of State for Transport, Alain Vidalies, advised the regional partners that the project cost had been re-evaluated at between 5.3 and 5.7 billion euros. The State budget will make up half of the difference, but the pressure on the local/regional authorities is of course increased.

Gérald Darmanin, vice-president of the Hauts-de-France Region in charge of transport, declared after the meeting that he was confident the problems would be overcome. His confidences echoes that of prime minister Manuel Valls, who visited Picardy on Monday November 14th to reassure regional economic and business interests. He expressed his government’s determination to see construction works start in 2017.

A new attempt to bridge the funding gap will be made at another meeting between the Government and local authorities on November 28, Additional contributions could be made by the local council groupings (communautés de communes) which will specifically benefit from – and have a major role in designing and building – the four multimodal port platforms along the canal.

So what are the political issues that have prevented more rapid progress in 2016? IWI is an apolitical organisation, and will not enter into the arena of French politics, but it is important to understand what is going on, since it is having an impact on the project. The project has eminent personalities that have been promoting the project with energy and fervour for many years, first Jean-Louis Borloo, former minister of the environment and sustainable development, also president of the Greater Valenciennes metropolitan area on the Escaut, then Rémi Pauvros, member of parliament and former mayor of Maubeuge on the Sambre, who led the ‘reconfiguration’ process that was started by the new Government set up by president François Hollande in 2012. This is a classic power struggle, made all the more intense by the imminence of change with the presidential election coming up in just a few months.

The other issue – partly political and partly related to economic development strategy – is opposition of the port of Le Havre to the project itself. The city and the port are concerned that they may lose their competitive advantage in handling traffics to and from the Paris region, their natural hinterland. It is reassuring that key political figures close to the mayor of Le Havre have declared themselves totally in favour of the new waterway, the benefits of which should far outweigh the possible loss of certain traffics to other ports in the Northern Range.

The canal (map, right) will be 107km long and 54m wide, It will significantly reduce saturation of the parallel A1 motorway. One push-tow carrying 4000 tonnes of freight does the job
of 200 trucks. The works are expected to generate more than 10 000 jobs annually for five years, and 50 000 permanent new jobs by 2050.

2008  The Seine-Nord Europe canal is declared of public utility, less than a year after the Government’s environmental policy statement.
2009  A public-private partnership (PPP) scheme is in place to finance the project, estimated at € 7 billion.
2013  A report by MP Rémi Pauvros the project in depth. The cost is revalued between 4.4 and 4.7 billion euros.
2014  Prime Minister Manuel Valls announces that works will begin in 2017.
2015  The Secretary of State for Transport, Alain Vidalies, proposes to replace the PPP by a public project company under the umbrella of Voies Navigables de France (VNF).
2017  The works must start at the end of the year, after further environmental impact studies on the reconfigured project
2021  Testing begins before commissioning section by section, starting from the southern end.
2024  The canal should be open to navigation throughout