Has the EU failed to act on maritime safety?

The shipwreck of the oil tanker “Prestige” raises new questions about maritime safety and environmental liability.

The sinking of the Prestige tanker will raise questions on thespeed of implementation and effectiveness of the EU and international regulationsthat followed in the wake of the Erika disaster. Although the Erika I and II packages were adopted by the EU, the Member States have to start enforcing these regulations only from July 2003. The target date of 2015 for the finalabolishing of all single-hull tankerswill certainly come under fire, as well the lack of control on ships flying under so-called flags of convenience.

The accident also will raise again the issue ofenvironmental liability, as it is unclear who will bear the costs for the clean-up of the spilled oil. The Prestige was owned by a Liberian company but registered under a Bahamian flag. It was managed by a Greek company and carried oil for a Swiss company whose owners are Russian.


TheEuropean Commissionstated that faster implementation by Member States of its proposals could have avoided the Prestige disaster. A spokesperson of Transport Commissioner de Palacio urged Member States' governments to move faster to enforce the new inspection rules. Under those new rules, port authorities will be required to inspect at least 25 per cent of all incoming ships.

The shipwreck started a blame game between governments, as four countries (Spain, Portugal, France and the UK) refused to allow the damaged ship into its ports for repairs. TheSpanish governmentblamed Gibraltar (the possible destination of the Prestige) for failing to comply with EU regulations on ship inspections. The UK government denied the accusations. On the other hand,French President Chiraccriticised the EU and called for "draconian" measures against the "bateaux-poubelles" (floating trashcans).

ThePresident of the European Parliament, Mr Patrick Cox, expressed his concern over the slow transposition of the Erika packages in the Member States. Addressing the MEPs in Strasbourg, Mr Cox said that the Parliamnt would be willing to re-open the debate with the Commission if necessary.

The Environmental organisationFriends of the Earthsaid that the disaster showed the "crying need for tough new liability laws for environmental damage". Friends of the Earth pointed to the EU's draft directive on environmental liability, which is to be discussed in the European Parliament later this month. It accused the oil industry and the European employers organisations of trying to weaken this directive, so as to make it "so weak it is practically useless".


The single-hulled oil tanker "Prestige" broke into two parts and sank on 19 November after having been damaged in storms off the northwest Galician coast of Spain at the end of last week. The tanker carried 70,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, which led environmentalists to warn of one of the largest oil leaks in the world -- about twice as big as the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989.

A similar accident happened in December 1999 when the oil tanker "Erika" sank off the coast of Brittany in northwest France. That event led to new EU regulation (the so-called Erika I and Erika II packages) meant to improve maritime safety in Europe. The Erika I package, adopted in 2000, included legislation to ban all oil tankers with a single hull from European waters by 2015 at the latest. The Erika II proposals included the establishment of a European Agency for Maritime Security and tougher inspection standards at EU ports.


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