Member states and MEPs head for troubled waters over maritime safety

A vote in the Transport Council on planned rules for beefing-up shipping standards and preventing accidents at sea saw member states confirm their opposition to Parliament’s stance on issues such as ship inspections and assistance for vessels in distress. 

There were no surprises as transport ministers adopted, on 7 June 2007, their position on a broad maritime safety package – the third of its kind to be put forward by the Commission, following a series of oil-tanker accidents, which wrecked the coastlines of several European countries. 

As indicated in earlier debates, the Council confirmed its intention to water-down a Commission plan to strengthen the existing ship-inspection regime, and repeated its objection to handing over greater authority to independent bodies for the investigation of accidents and the designation of places of refuge for ships in distress. 

The move will displease both the Commission and Parliament, which had pushed for stricter procedures.

While EU states want more flexibility as regards the new inspection regime for ships coming through European ports (port state controls), including the right to skip inspections on 5% of ships with a high-risk profile and on 10% of other ships, the Commission and MEPs are adamant that 100% of individual ships must be inspected (EURACTIV 26/04/07). Member states, however, insist that this will be very expensive and too hard to police. Up to now, they have only been obliged to check 25% of foreign ships entering their ports. 

Another sticking point is the proposal to create independent bodies in each country that would be responsible for reacting to accidents at sea. MEPs have urged the Commission to leave member states “no margin of discretion” in deciding whether to accept that ships in distress be transported to their coasts for repairs, arguing that this would result in loss of precious time before rescue operations take place. 

However, member states, for fear of exposing themselves to unwelcome financial and environmental risks, have rejected the possibility of creating a single authority that would have sole responsibility for assistance when disasters occur and with the capacity to impose independent decisions about where ships should be taken in for salvage and repair operations. Instead, they voted to retain the possibility of refusing to assist vessels that lack sufficient financial guarantees. 

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