Europe's ports are one of its key commercial strengths

Europe's maritime sector is a world leader, but there is room for improvement if it is to retain that position, writes Lucy Anderson.

Lucy Anderson | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Lucy Anderson

21 Mar 2017

Ports are without doubt one of the most important elements of the EU's transport networks. In addition to the 3.8 billion tonnes of goods that Europe's ports handle every year, there are more than 400 million passengers passing through. 

Other world regions cannot boast so many well-functioning transport interchanges that link maritime together with rail, road and inland waterways. 

And on environmental performance, while there is still much work to be done, most EU ports are working proactively on sustainability issues, including by obtaining certification of their environmental management systems. 


It is also true that the maritime sector more widely needs to increase its focus on tackling shipping emissions.

A key commercial strength of the EU is that some of the best ports in the world are based in the continent. In addition, Europe has a high level of shipping expertise and there is strong potential for port industries to grow in all maritime regions. 

Because of this, and due to the fast-growing performance of the port sector, its European companies and industries have regained competitiveness in domestic and world markets, despite the generally negative economic climate since 2008.

In the United Kingdom, the economy depends crucially on the ports sector, which handles 95 per cent of UK international trade. UK ports are not only performing well, but are also well placed in world rankings on productivity, supporting jobs, driving innovation and enabling trade.

The new TEN-T guidelines and the Connecting Europe Facility projects (as part of a new transport infrastructure policy that connects the continent between east and west, north and south) aim to close the gaps between member states' transport networks, to fill in the missing sections and complete the main routes, and to remove bottlenecks that still hamper the smooth functioning of the internal market.

In this context, UK ports sit at the heart of a pan-European supply network facilitating trade with the rest of the world and creating logistic chains than span different modes of transport. They are instrumental for promoting short sea shipping as an alternative to saturated land transport corridors and contributing to the territorial cohesion of the European Union. 

As part of the North Sea-Mediterranean corridor of the TEN-T programme, UK ports are investing heavily every year, strengthening productivity and quality of service, and taking forward large new projects as well as improving safety and environmental performance. On top of this, they support almost 400,000 jobs and contribute around £21bn annually to UK GDP. 

More generally, European ports should strive to create a sustainable transport system that supports the long-term prosperity and living standards of European citizens. They should also be able to deliver a better service to European industry and Europe's economy. 

Recently, after a lengthy period of negotiations with the Council, the European Commission's third attempt to establish a ports legislation at EU level came to a successful end. Labour MEPs have consistently challenged these proposals and previous draft laws because they initially failed to recognise the different port models and approaches in each EU country.

However, after much effort, the European Parliament has managed to secure some limited improvements. These include explicit respect for employment and trade union rights and a flexible framework for the organisation of port services. 

Now it is up to the European Commission to take this regulation and make sure that proper implementation and good interpretation will allow the rules on transparency to work to the benefit of everyone.

It would be a missed opportunity for the Commission not to ensure proper implementation of EU standards in the ports sector that prioritise safety, fair terms and transparency.

We also have to step up our collective efforts to make sure that all EU ports will continue to be operating well, to keep playing an important role in facilitating European trade with the rest of the world and to ensure efficient transport flows for passengers and goods throughout the Union. 

The ports and maritime sector will now face the key challenge of Brexit. It is to be hoped that during the negotiation process, the overriding necessity of ensuring that movement of goods and people between continental Europe and the UK via sea can continue smoothly will be prioritised. 

There are many difficult issues to be addressed, including maintaining investment levels, the likelihood of implementing a new customs regime, retaining skills and expertise in the UK sector and protecting seafarers and port workers from exploitation and downgrading of terms and conditions.


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