Parliament tightens EU maritime-safety rules

New EU rules on the harmonisation of shipping standards and on ship operators’ liability were cleared by Parliament on 29 March 2007, as part of a series of seven pieces of legislation on maritime safety to be voted on in April.

MEPs supported Commission proposals to make International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules on flag-state obligations mandatory for all member states, which are required to monitor compliance with international standards by ships sailing under their flag. However, at present an important degree of discretion is left to the flag states, which the new legislation would remove by introducing regular audits and assessments. 

In previous discussions, the Council had opposed such a measure, with member states arguing that this would generate too many additional costs for their administrations and that the Commission had no right to take action in a field they believe should be left to international law.

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. At present, for damage caused by ships to third parties, international conventions allow shipowners to limit their liability in almost all cases.

The draft directive would introduce compulsory insurance shemes for shipowners in Europe and ‘core rules’ governing civil liability on an EU basis by incorporating the IMO Convention on the Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims (LLMC) into EU law.

Gilles Savary MEP (PES, France), Vice-President of the Parliament's Transport Committee, described the vote as "historic". "An old maritime tradition continues to limit the legal accountability of maritime operators in the field of compensation of disaster-related harm. Today, the nature of goods transported, their toxicity, their tonnage and the traffic…do not justify such renunciation."

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is firmly opposed to the proposed EU Directive on Civil Liability and the Financial Security of Shipowners, saying that it will "lead to the creation of a mandate for the EU to negotiate unwelcome changes to the IMO Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims (LLMC) – with the possible ultimate goal of removing shipowners' right to limit liability".

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 Commission has already adopted the Erika I and II packages 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 by the Parliament's transport committee on 1 March 2007, and the MEPs adopted in Plenary two of the seven reports on 29 March 2007 – on 'flag state obligations' ie the duties of states to ensure ships flying their flag meet international standards, and secondly, on 'civil liability' which aims to make shipowners fully liable for damage to third parties.

The remaining five reports will be voted on by Parliament in April 2007.

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