- Catching substandard ships:
Countries are required to verify whether ships flying under their flag comply with international safety standards (Flag State Control). However, existing conventions leave an important degree of discretion to flag States, and ships in international voyages can easily deviate from the rules.
The Commission, with its 3rd maritime safety package, is proposing to make IMO rules on responsibilities of flag states mandatory for all member states, with regular audits and assessments. Parliament backed this proposal but, member states say it would generate too many additional costs for their administrations (EURACTIV 27/03/07) and have sent the Commission back to the drawing board (EURACTIV 07/04/08 and 08/04/08).
The Commission is also looking to strengten surveillance of "classification societies", the private bodies which can be authorised by member states to carry out inspection and certification tasks on ships flying their flag.
Furthermore, the Commission wants to strengthen its system of port state controls. Indeed, flag state controls may only be applied to ships flying under an EU member state flag but accidents in EU waters are often caused by substandard ships from third countries. The EU had already introduced, in 1995, a system of Port State controls to monitor foreign ships entering EU ports which allows substandard ships to be added to a Community blacklist and refused access to EU ports.
Following the Erika accident, the EU decided to up the number of controls, demanding that member states inspect 25% of all foreign ships. However, this purely quantitative control system generated considerable costs and inconvenience for ships that were safe because they nevertheless had to undergo repeated checks. Furthermore, despite achieving a five-fold increase in the number of inspections, unsafe ships continued to slip through the system.
The Commission is thus proposing a new regime where 100% of individual ships are inspected. The new system would take into account ships’ risk profiles, subjecting higher-risk vessels, including all passenger ships and oil and chemical tankers of more than 12 years in age, to more frequent checks. Member states say that this will be expensive and too hard to police and have asked to be allowed to miss up to 10% of inspections (EURACTIV 12/12/06), but the Parliament rejected this idea in a first reading vote in April 2007 (EURACTIV 26/04/07).
- Reducing the risk of oil spills:
Fires, explosions, collisions and hull failures are among the main types of shipping accidents which give rise to oil pollution. For low energy collisions and minor groundings, double-hulled tankers are much less likely to spill oil than single-hulled tankers. The Erika and Prestige ships were both single-hull carriers and, following the two accidents, the EU decided, in 2002, to prohibit single-hull oil tankers from carrying heavy fuel oil in the European Union as of 2003 and to gradually eliminate all EU single-hull tankers by 2010. The phase-out has been integrated into the IMO Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by Ships (MARPOL) and adopted by 130 countries.
Nevertheless, a high level panel of experts established by the EMSA has published a report saying that, while the use of double hulled tankers will undoubtedly lead to a reduction in pollution, it will not be a panacea. Improvements can still be achieved on hull maintenance, coatings and gas detection systems.
- Responding to accidents at sea:
When a ship has suffered an incident, the best way to prevent damage or pollution from its deterioration is to transfer its cargo and make repairs. This is best done in a place of refuge. However, by accepting a ship in distress, countries expose themselves to financial and environmental risks. Indeed, costs related to salvage operations, clearing up pollution, property damage or disruption of economic operations can be huge.
The proposed Directive on vessel traffic monitoring seeks to take into account both the rights and interests of coastal states and the need to render assistance to vessels that are damaged. It makes it mandatory for member states to designate independent authorities which will take the decision to accept or refuse vessels based on a full risk assessment. At the same time, it allows member states to request that a vessel be covered by insurance that would permit appropriate compensation for costs and damage associated with its accommodation in the place of refuge.
However the proposal is proving to be one of the real sticking points between member states and Parliament. Indeed, while MEPs say member states should have "no margin of discretion" in the decision, arguing that this would result in loss of precious time before rescue operations take place, countries are reluctant to submit themselves to an independent decision-making body that would have the authority to expose their coastlines and ports to such serious risks.
- Making shipowners behave responsibly:
In September 2005, the EU adopted dissuasive measures on ship-source pollution, making shipowners fully liable for any polluting discharges committed with intent, recklessly or by serious negligence, and introducing penalties against offenders. A coalition of shipping industry organisations led by Intertanko says the directive is unlawful and has initiated legal proceedings. The European Court of Justice is expected to take a decision in 2007.
The Commission now intends to complement this legislation by making shipowners liable in the event of damage to a third party. International conventions in this area have little dissuasive effect as they allow shipowners to limit their liability in almost all cases. The Commission wants to establish unlimited liability in the event of grave negligence and set levels of compensation sufficiently high to cover most scenarios. In addition, the Commission is suggesting that shipowners be obliged to take out an insurance policy to guarantee they can cover their liability vis-à-vis third parties. But a large majority of EU countries opposed these plans in the Council's first reading of the package (EURACTIV 07/04/08 and 08/04/08).
At the same time, the Commission is proposing to enhance the safety of passengers by adopting a Regulation on the civil liability of passenger carriers which would ensure compensation to all passengers having suffered an accident so long as they purchased their tickets in Europe, even if they travel outside Community waters or onboard a foreign vessel.
- Protecting ships and ports against terrorism:
Vessels, people, infrastructure, the environment, as well as trade can be seriously threatened by acts of terrorism or piracy. The EU therefore established, in 2004, certain obligatory standards to increase ship and port security. Each ship intending to enter the port of a member state must provide 24-hour advance information concerning ship and cargo safety. Furthermore, the EU adopted in October 2005 a directive telling EU members to draw up port security plans, and the Commission is entitled to conduct inspections to verify their effectiveness.
The EU also co-operates with the USA to eliminate potential terrorist threats from maritime container transport in the framework of the Container Security Initiative (CSI) launched in September 2004.