Cracks appear in EU maritime safety strategy


While international efforts to clean up shipping made significant progress last week with a compromise on cutting air pollution from ships, a meeting of European transport ministers today (7 April) could see EU ambitions to tackle maritime pollution scaled down.

The International Maritime Organisation’s environmental committee agreed, on 4 April, to slash the maximum level of sulphur content in marine fuels from 4.5% to 0.5% by 2020. 

The move, which should be confirmed by IMO governments in October, was long awaited by the EU. Indeed, the bloc has been pushing for a global deal on cutting harmful pollutants emitted by ships, including not only sulphur, but also nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other greenhouse gases. It has notably criticised progress within the UN agency for being too slow and says it will go it alone if things are not speeded up (EURACTIV 17/04/07). 

No agreement has yet been reached on tackling carbon dioxide, but the Commission nevertheless welcomed the “unbelievable” progress achieved on sulphur.

But the EU executive is likely to be less enthusiastic later today (7 April) once the bloc’s 27 transport ministers have discussed its proposals to tackle pollution at sea.

Indeed, the majority of member states look set to reject outright two draft texts containing new rules on flag state compliance and the civil liability of shipowners. The two proposals are part of a broader ‘Erika III’ package on maritime safety, named after the infamous single-hull tanker that sank off the coast of France in 1999, causing a catastrophic oil spill. 

The Commission wants to make IMO rules on ‘flag state obligations’ – i.e. the duties of countries to ensure that ships flying their flag meet certain safety standards – mandatory for all member states, with the introduction of regular audits and assessments. 

It also wants to make ship operators fully liable for damage to third parties and establish a compulsory insurance scheme to ensure they are financially able to compensate them in the event of accidents and pollution. 

But, in both cases, at least 10-12 member states are arguing that too many additional costs would be generated for their administrations and that the issues would be better dealt with at IMO level. This would leave a much larger degree of discretion to member states. 

With only a handful of countries, including France, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain, eager to back the Commission’s plans, the Slovenian Presidency looks to have a tough job on its hands to achieve a compromise, even on a “softer” text. 

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