EU efforts to promote sea transport bring little progress

7'% of EU imports and exports are transported by sea. [Adam Jenkins/Flickr]

Almost 40% of goods traded within the European Union are transported by sea, a cleaner alternative to road transport. Despite efforts from Brussels to promote maritime transport, the sector’s market share within the EU has not grown in the last 15 years. EURACTIV France reports

Shipping is still Europe’s second choice for short distance transport, behind road transport, despite its environmental credentials and the congested state of European roads.

Since 2001, the European Union has promoted policies to try to keep as much freight as possible off the roads, but the market share of sea transport remains unchanged.

Slow process

Around 45% of goods traded within the European Union are transported by road, and just under 40% by sea. Rail and river transport account for the rest of the market.

“The switch to clean transport is one of the priorities of European transport policy. But the objectives have not yet been achieved,” said Eric Banel, Delegate-General for the Association of French Shipowners.

Antidia Citorès, from the coastal protection NGO Surfrider, said, “Despite certain drawbacks, sea transport is the cleanest in terms of CO2 emissions”.

The changing nature of the EU may go some way towards explaining the stagnation of the sea transport sector. Jean-Marie Millour, from the Short Sea Promotion Centre, explained that “the stagnation of the sea transport sector’s market share should be viewed alongside the EU’s enlargement into continental Europe and countries that are largely landlocked”.

>> Read: EU seeks to shift freight to rail and shipping

In this context, the fact that sea transport has maintained its market share could be seen as a relative success for European policy.

Among the challenges the short distance sea transport sector must confront in order to strengthen its position is its low standing on the political agenda. “Unfortunately, sea transport is not high on the list of political priorities,” said Jean-Marie Millour. He added that “the majority of European transport infrastructure subsidies are swallowed up by the rail sector”.

External costs

Road transport is still number one for freight in the EU, despite its heavy carbon footprint. The sector has an advantage over its rivals in that it does not pay directly for the infrastructure it uses, the pollution it emits or the accidents it causes.

“We have still not found a way to assess the real value added by sea transport, and the subject has not been tackled by European policies,” said Eric Banel.

Eco-tax versus eco-bonus

Beyond the politicians’ failure to recognise the benefits of sea transport, the sector is also placed at a disadvantage by the favourable treatment of road transport operators. “We can say that road transport is encouraged rather than that sea transport is discouraged,” said Dominique Riquet, Vice-President of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport.

Plans to force the road transport industry to absorb their external costs, by placing additional eco-taxes on HGV transport, have made progress in Europe. But the French government’s abandonment of its eco-tax project has had direct negative consequences for the EU’s economically troubled sea freight routes.

>> Read: France freezes HGV eco-tax (in French)

The link between the French port of Nantes Saint-Nazaire, and the Spanish port of Gijón, was closed down shortly after the tax was discarded, as it could no longer compete with the road as a cheaper alternative. “And there are other examples in other countries,” said Jean-Marie Millour.

Blue Belt

The European Commission’s 2013 “Blue Belt” project aims to install an EU-wide customs union for maritime transport, as the complexity of customs procedures is among the factors holding back the sector’s development.

Jean-Marie Millour said “Today, going from one European country to another is almost as administratively complicated as making the journey from Europe to China”.

Unlike land borders, the sea borders between the member states remain tightly controlled by the different customs services. According to the European Commission, this adds levels of complexity that act as “bottlenecks, hindering the development of sea transport”. 

The European Union is heavily dependent on maritime transport for both external and internal trade.

74% of EU imports and exports pass through European sea ports, as do 37% of the goods traded within the Union.

Sea freight has numerous advantages over other modes of transport, particularly road transport, including lower costs and a smaller environmental impact. 

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