MEPs call for safer shipping rules

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The European Parliament’s transport committee voted to strengthen rules aimed at preventing and controlling the effects of accidents at sea and ship pollution, two weeks after the opening of the ‘Erika’ trial in Paris.

Rules on catching substandard ships should be strengthened and clarified, according to reports likely to be backed by Parliament next month, after they were adopted nearly unanimously by its transport committee on 27 February 2007. 

MEPs agreed with Commission proposals to make optional International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules on flag state obligations mandatory for all member states. 

In previous discussions, the Council had opposed such a measure, which would require countries to check that each ship sailing under their flag complies with international safety standards. Member states say that this would generate too many additional costs for their administrations. 

As regards Commission proposals to inspect all ships coming through European ports (port state controls), the committee laid out detailed provisions for strengthening the inspection regime. It calls for all vessels that have a high-risk profile and for all passenger ships and oil and chemical tankers of more than 12 years in age to be subjected to additional inspections. Ships that are detained in port more than twice in 36 months could be banned from EU ports. 

MEPs also voted to strengthen Commission proposals to increase the liability of ship operators and to compensate third parties and passengers in the event of accidents. 

On the other hand, they opposed Commission proposals to leave member states a choice whether to accept that ships in distress be transported to their coasts for repairs, as this can result in loss of precious time before rescue operations take place. Indeed, countries are often reluctant to expose themselves to the financial and environmental risks. The committee therefore called for a single authority to be set up, with sole responsibility for assistance when disasters occur and with the capacity to take completely independent decisions. 

Socialist MEP Marta Vincenzi, author of the report on the obligations of flag states, said that the package would "make Europe's maritime space one of the world's safest". She added: "This vote sends a clear signal to the Council, where many member states are still putting up resistance." 

Gilles Savary, vice-president of the Transport Committee, in charge of the report on the civil liability of ship owners, said: "Given the volume and the toxicity of cargoes, particularly chemicals and oil, being shipped today across the world's seas and oceans, new rules on liability and insurance are necessary in order not only to provide better compensation for disaster damage to third parties and to our natural heritage, but above all so that the law can exert positive pressure on shippers, owners and all professionals within maritime transport." 

"This vote marks a mini-revolution for the maritime world," he added. 

The European Marine Equipment Council (EMEC), which represents companies in the marine equipment sector, particularly welcomed Parliament's vote on harmonising and improving the quality of work of so-called classification societies, the independent bodies to which countries delegate tasks such as inspecting their ships and issuing safety certificates. "Thanks to the amendments introduced today by the TRAN Committee, the harmonisation will be based on the most demanding and rigorous standards: we are ready to meet the challenge," said EMEC, adding: "This will improve the efficiency of the system, releasing important resources for research and development activities…This will allow us to greatly increase the safety and environmental performance of our products." 

Strengthening maritime safety became a top EU priority following the dramatic sinking of two single-hull tankers in less than three years. The Erika (1999) and Prestige (2002) – ageing and rusting ships more than 25 years old – both leaked out more than 20,000 tonnes of oil into Europe's seas and onto French and Spanish coastlines, destroying the marine environment and killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds. 

The French state, local authorities along the Atlantic coast and more than 50 private plaintiffs are seeking up to €1million in damages for the cost of the clean-up and the economic effects on tourism and fishing. 

French oil company Total and 14 other defendants were accused on 12 February 2007 of criminal responsibility for the wreck of the Erika. The judicial report accuses them of agreeing to use the vessel despite its failure to satisfy safety rules. They have all pleaded not guilty. The trial will last four months. (For more information on the trial, see: http://www.proces-erika.org/).

The Erika and Prestige accidents were eye-openers to the risks associated with maritime shipping and pushed the European Commission to adopt a series of preventive measures, known as the Erika I and II packages, to reduce the risks of accidental pollution. 

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

  • April 2007:  Plenary vote on the seven reports in Parliament (first reading).

 

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