Maritime Safety


Following oil slicks that devastated European coasts in the past decade, the Commission is taking further action to improve maritime safety by preventing accidents and pollution and better controlling their effects. Its proposals also seek to enhance passenger and crew safety against the risks of accidents and terrorist attacks.


  • 25% of the world fleet flies under EU Member States’ flags and 40% is controlled by EU-owned companies; 
  • Almost 90% of EU external trade in goods and more than 40% of its internal trade is transported by sea; 
  • Some 1 billion tonnes of oil enter European Union ports or cross the waters surrounding its territory each year; 
  • Latest disasters in EU territory include the accidents of 25-year old single-hull oil carriers Erika (in 1999) and Prestige (in 2002). The tankers respectively leaked around 22.000 and 20.000 tonnes of oil into the sea, causing huge damage to the environment, fisheries and tourism. 
  • Over 45% of the European fleet is more than 20 years old.
  • 350 million passengers are transported on European ship journeys each year. 
  • Globally over 100 ships are lost each year accounting for over 3 000 lives. 

Policy Development: 

Despite the existence of a well developed framework of international standards for safety at sea and for the protection of the marine environment - most of them laid down in Conventions developed within the International Maritime Organisation  (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - many flag States and shipowners continue to break the rules, thereby putting crews and the environment at risk and benefiting from unfair competition. 

The Commission adopted its first common policy on maritime safety in 1993, with the aim to ensure that all ships flying under the flag of an EU Member State or entering a European port comply with international safety standards. 

The Erika and Prestige accidents were real eye-openers on the risks related to maritime shipping and pushed the Commission to adopt a series of preventive measures, known as the Erika I and II packages, to reduce the risks of accidental pollution by ships. It also set up a European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) responsible for improving drafting and enforcement of EU rules on maritime safety. 

Despite the reduction in the number of maritime accidents, certain safety threats remain and the Commission adopted a third package of 7 legislative proposals on 23 November 2005 to supplement and improve existing rules. 

In addition to these preventive measures, the EU also adopted, in December 2006, legislation granting €154 million, between 2007-2013, to EMSA to help it to improve the Union’s response to sea-polluting incidents. The aim is to enable the Agency to provide anti-pollution vessels to states affected by pollution from oil or other hazardous and noxious substances and to develop a centralised satellite imagery service which will facilitate the early detection of polluting incidents and the identification of the ships responsible. 

  • 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.

The Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe (CPMR) regret that the new maritime safety package fails to deal with the ‘human element’ of maritime safety, arguing that crew qualifications should be harmonised throughout the EU and that working conditions on board vessels should be improved so as to avoid accidents caused by fatigue. 

Regions wish to be more involved in decisions regarding places of refuge. Indeed, the current proposal shifts decision-making power regarding the accommodation of ships in distress from local authorities to an independent national body. The European Seaports Organisation (ESPO)  points out that “this will leave ports in a vulnerable position: on the one hand they give up decision-making authority, but on the other hand they do not have any certainty regarding compensation for incurred damages” because, the text does not mention how nor for which costs ports can be compensated. ESPO and CoR therefore recommend that independent authorities be fully liable for their decisions. 

The European Community Shipowner’s Association (ECSA)  and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS)  support moving away from the 25% port state control objective saying that this will allow resources to be better targeted. Nevertheless, they say that criteria for refusal of access should only be based on the inspection history and not on the flag as this could allow sub-standard ships to be protected because registered under a generally sound flag. They also call for more lenience regarding blacklist criteria, particularly for companies operating large fleets of ships. 

The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) strongly objects to the criminalisation and vilification of ship masters stressing that the large majority of oil pollution is accidental. 

Giuliano Gallanti, Chairman of ESPO highlighted the difficulty of transposing the port security Directive into national legislation. Specific concerns will be how to maintain an accessible port under the new security rules and how to finance new port security measures. “The estimation of overall security costs is very high and the great disparity of funding approaches between Member States may entail distortions of competition”, he said. 

The NGO Seas at Risk highlights the need to establish minimum standards for hull construction and tighten inspections for ageing double-hull tankers as their structural integrity can decrease seriously during their life-span. 

  • 7 Jun. 2007: Council reached political agreement on three of the seven legislative proposals (vessel monitoring, port state controls and accident investigations).
  • 29 Nov. 2007: Council reached political agreement on proposals to strengthen ship inspection bodies and on the liability of shipowners in the event of accidents. 
  • 16 Jan. 2008: 'Erika' trial in Paris: landmark Court decision to convict parties for "ecological prejudice" (EURACTIV 17/01/08).  
  • 7 Apr. 2008: Council rejected the two last proposals on flag state obligations and civil liability of shipowners, sending the Commission back to the drawing board (EURACTIV 07/04/08 and 08/04/08).
  • 24 Sept. 2008: Second reading in Parliament, which saw MEPs demand that governments adopt Commission proposals on flag state and civil liability (EURACTIV 25/09/08).
  • 9 Oct. 2008: Council reached agreement on two last proposals, significantly watering them down and opening the door to conciliation with the Parliament.
  • 8 Dec. 2008: Parliament and Council conciliation committee reached an agreement on the third maritime package. The agreement must now be formally approved by both in order for the set of proposals to be adopted.

Subscribe to our newsletters