The EU is failing to take advantage of its port and shipping sector potential

The economic and ecologic viability of Europe's seaports must be addressed, writes Michael Cramer.

By Michael Cramer

18 May 2015

Among the 22 coastal members of the European Union you can count more than 1200 seaports, with many of them connected and integrated into our coastal towns and cities. As such, the shipping sector plays a significant role in the EU's economy. 

Ports offer direct employment to approximately 110,000 people, providing indirect support to around three million more. Almost 90 per cent of the EU's external trade is facilitated by seaports, as are 40 per cent of freight exchanges between member states.

Seaports are the gateway for two-thirds of all goods which are imported by more than 60,000 cargo ships from non-EU countries. Over 3.8 billion tonnes of cargo are handled in these ports annually. According to economic forecasts, the amount of handled cargo in Europe's ports will see a 50 per cent increase by 2030. These numbers are impressive and showcase the undeniable importance and potential of the shipping sector in Europe.


Nevertheless, there are also several challenges regarding the current state of EU seaports which must be addressed in order to make this sector economically and ecologically viable. Today, European seaports often stand in competition with one another rather than in cooperation. This might make sense if you look at seaports individually, but this current state of affairs is in contradiction with the political aim of creating a European transport area that efficiently serves its citizens and society. 

The distribution of incoming goods could hardly be more disproportional, with approximately one fifth of the total cargo coming into the European Union being handled in the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp, or Hamburg. This causes longer journeys for sea freighters, with goods then needing to be further transported onshore by trucks and railways en route to far away destinations. This in turn leads to increased congestions on roadways, higher costs for transport and more carbon dioxide emissions.

While there are many ports that have excess capacity and could take on more traffic, ensuring that the delivery of goods is as geographically close as possible to their final end-markets. The current approach undermines the often praised short-sea-shipping strategy by creating a performance gap between ports and leading to asymmetric amounts of investment.

Despite container shipping being the most carbon efficient means of transporting most goods across the world, ships are a constant source of noise and pollution. In particular, the ongoing use of heavy oil as fuel for freighters and cruise ships causes bad air and water quality in towns and cities close to seaports. 

Heavy oil is a hazardous waste derived from raw oil production and should be professionally disposed of. Instead it is burnt as fuel by ships without any filtering. Studies indicate that emissions produced by global sea traffic cause up to 50,000 deaths per year, chiefly along the coastal areas of Europe.

We already have an aggregate emission cap for cars and these figures show that we also need one for ships.

Improving the environmental performance of shipping is not only important globally, but also represents the interests of inhabitants of our port areas and those employed in ports and shipping. Existing pieces of EU legislation dealing with environmental issues in direct port areas offer a good guideline, but they need to be further enforced and implemented.

All these challenges require an intelligent and modern political framework which allows for better coordination and cooperation of seaports within the EU in order to reach a more efficient use of existing capacities. 

We must enhance the cross-border cooperation of ports as well as develop smart concepts for macro-regions such as the Mediterranean sea, the Baltic sea, the North sea and the Black sea, as well as the Atlantic ocean. Europe's geographic situation offers a unique competitive advantage for our seaports. Worldwide there is no comparable economic area, where the conglomeration of seaports and the average distance of ports to final destination markets are as relatively short as in Europe. 

We have to take advantage of this potential and reconsider transport flows under multi-modal premises with the aim of reducing and avoiding road transport flows through mainland Europe wherever possible. Instead, short-sea-shipping and better developed inland waterways and railways should be the priorities for alleviating freight traffic on Europe's roads.


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