EC countries to improve maritime safety “to avoid a new Erika disaster”

The European Commission has proposed the creation of a European maritime safety agency, a new oil spill compensation fund to supplement an existing international fund, and a system to monitor ships travelling in European waters, whether or not they enter a port.

Following on from the legislative proposals put forward in March after the sinking of the oil tanker Erika one year ago (see related story), on 6 December, the EC published a second set of three measures to improve maritime safety.

The first proposal is for a stricter control of maritime traffic. The Commission is aims to tighten up the monitoring and control arrangements for ships in transit off the EC’s coasts, to catch out substandard ships. To do this, a notification system for all ships, whether calling at EC ports or not, would be established, requiring vessels in Community waters to carry automatic identification systems and ‘black boxes’ similar to those used in aircraft, in order to facilitate accident investigations.

Ships would also be prevented from leaving port in extreme weather conditions to limit shipwrecks, and it would be compulsory for each member state to have ports of refuge for vessels in distress.

The second proposal is for better compensation for coastal pollution damage. The current rules governing compensation for pollution damage caused by oil tankers were drawn up in the 1970s under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The Commission is now proposing the establishment of a European pollution damage compensation fund (COPE Fund) to provide additional compensation up to a ceiling of 1 billion euros (£620 million) for victims where the current ceiling of 200 million euros (£123 million) is exceeded. The fund will help speed up the full compensation of victims of oil spills in Community waters and would be financed by European firms which import oil, the EC says. The proposal also provides for the imposition by member states of financial penalties for negligent behaviour by any person involved in the transport of oil by sea.

The EC is also calling for a European Maritime Safety Agency to be set up. The Agency would have a limited staff of 50 and would provide the Commission and member states with support in applying and monitoring compliance, and evaluate the effectiveness of the maritime safety measures introduced. The Agency’s tasks would include the collection of information and the operation of data bases on maritime safety, evaluation and audit of maritime classification societies, and the organisation of inspection visits in the member states to check the conditions under which port state control is carried out. It would be able to assist the national inspectors in their control tasks, in particular by enabling the inspectors to better identify vessels posing a risk which should be the subject of tighter controls.

The Commission wants the Council and European Parliament to reach agreement as soon as possible on the measures contained in the first package. Since the Maastricht Treaty, measures concerning maritime safety can be adopted by qualified majority rather than unanimously. According to Loyola de Palacio, Vice-President in charge of transport and energy, “adoption of these measures by the Community will make it possible to build a genuine European maritime safety area and ensure an optimum level of protection for the marine environment and the European coastline”.

It is possible that some of the new proposals will be criticised by the IMO, which has criticised EU and American attempts to impose unilateral maritime safety standards, saying that transboundary nature of shipping needs globally uniform laws.

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