MEPs set to back tough ship-safety rules

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A vote in Parliament on rules aimed at beefing up maritime safety in European waters is expected to see MEPs take a firm stance against member states on issues such as ship inspections and assistance for vessels in distress.

It emerged from a debate held one day before the vote in Plenary, due on 25 April, that MEPs look set to strengthen rules proposed by the Commission to enhance maritime safety in the EU. But they could be in for a fierce battle with member states, a number of which have strong national maritime interests and are not inclined to allow EU interference on issues such as inspecting ships, helping vessels in distress and compensation for ship passengers and crews. 

Nevertheless, the Parliament is likely to request that rules on catching substandard ships be strengthened, notably by hardening the inspection regime for all ships coming through European ports (port state controls). 

Member states have asked to be allowed to miss up to 10% of inspections, but EP rapporteur Dominique Vlasto (EPP-ED) is insistent that all individual ships need to be inspected. She proposes concentrating on vessels with a high-risk profile and all passenger ships and oil and chemical tankers of more than 12 years in age, subjecting them to additional inspections. 

Member states say that this will be expensive and too hard to police. Up to now, they have only been obliged to check 25% of foreign ships entering their ports. But to arrive at this figure, many states concentrate their controls on safe ships, which take less time, meaning the objective is fulfilled but with a “safety benefit that is close to nil”. 

Vlasto therefore wants stricter measures, including the possibility of refusing entry into ports for dangerous ships and of banning ships that have been detained more than twice in 36 months. 

Another sticking point between member states and Parliament is the proposal to create independent bodies in each country that would be responsible for reacting to accidents at sea

Rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ALDE) believes that member states should have “no margin of discretion” in deciding 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. 

But countries are reluctant to submit themselves to an independent decision-making body that would have the authority to expose their coastlines and ports to serious financial and environmental risks. 

Member states are also split over who should take responsibility for investigating accidents once they have happened. Rapporteur Jaromir Kohlicek wants permanent independent investigative bodies to be set up in order to ensure unbiased, in-depth, quality inquiries. 

The Parliament is also likely to request stronger passenger protection in the event of accidents and a tighter surveillance of member states’ classification societies, bodies to which countries delegate tasks such as inspecting their ships and issuing safety certificates. 

Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot underlined the reasons to secure the whole chain of shipping to avert new oil spills. He highlighted, in particular, the proposal to increase the number of vessel inspections, saying: "We would like to control 100% of sea traffic...There are too many substandard ships getting through the mesh of our net at the moment. The new system will allow us to avoid this, while rewarding high quality ships by subjecting them to fewer controls." 

He also insisted on the need to ensure that ship passengers enjoy similar levels of protection to those in other types of transport. "Why should a passenger travelling between member states by sea be protected when one travelling within a member state, by sea or river, is not?" he said. 

French MEP Dominique Vlasto (EPP-ED), rapporteur on the port state control report, criticised attempts from member states to water down the proposals to inspect 100% of vessels in European waters, saying: "I would be happy to see some flexibility, allowing ships to be checked less often, perhaps, but not if this means some ships are not inspected at all." 

"Our objective is simple but clear: We must eradicate dustbin ships that pollute," she added. 

Belgian MEP Dirk Sterckx (ALDE), rapporteur on the monitoring and tracking report, said: "We have still not seen a lot of enthusiasm among member states for setting up bodies to take decisions once accidents happen. But these bodies could save lives, protect our coasts and protect our economies – surely that is a good enough reason to support them?"

Czech MEP Jaromir Kohlicek (GUE/NGL), rapporteur on the accident investigation report, said: "We need better guidelines on how to conduct investigations and learn from accidents." He noted that some countries, particularly in the Mediterranean, were "struggling" with the idea of independent commissions, but said: "I see no reason why these independent bodies could not work alongside other states, to ensure a better level of investigation." 

The high-profile sinking of two single-hull tankers in less than three years - the Erika (1999) and Prestige (2002) - and the accompanying environmental damage caused by the spilling of their oil spurred the EU to take action on maritime safety. 

The Erika I and II packages were adopted in 2000 to reduce risks of accidental pollution, and a third package of seven legislative proposals was presented by the Commission on 23 November 2005 further to improve current safety measures. 

The seven legislative proposals were supported nearly unanimously by the Parliament's transport committee on 27 February 2007, and, one month later, the Plenary adopted two of these reports – on 'flag state obligations', ie the duties of states to ensure ships flying their flag meet international standards, and on 'civil liability', which aims to make shipowners fully liable for damage to third parties. 

MEPs are due to vote on the remaining five proposals in Plenary, on 25 April. 

  • 25 April 2007: Parliament to vote on first-reading reports on five of the seven legislative proposals. 
  • 6 June 2007: Council expected to present a common position for second reading.

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