Duff slams docks vote

By Andrew DuffOUR region took a blow last week with the narrow defeat in the European Parliament of an important piece of legislation that would have opened up Europe's ports to greater competition.

By Andrew Duff

OUR region took a blow last week with the narrow defeat in the European Parliament of an important piece of legislation that would have opened up Europe's ports to greater competition. The East of England, in Felixstowe, Harwich and Tilbury, has some of the most modern and efficient large ports in the EU. For us, therefore, more competition within and between ports would have meant more trade and more jobs.

Unfortunately, the draft Access to Port Services Directive was rejected by 20 votes. The purpose of the draft law was to allow ship owners more choice in how their vessels are loaded and unloaded, and by whom. Its greatest effect would have been felt at Antwerp, where unreformed trades unions still enjoy monopolistic privileges that were outlawed in Britain under Mrs Thatcher.

The proposed measure had built-in safeguards for health, safety and the environment and for the training of dockers. It would only have permitted skilled workers to be employed on the dockside. Seafaring crews would be restricted to lashing and stowing on board. The professional status of pilots was to be protected.


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National labour law was not affected by this EU measure – the port authorities could have set the standards that all service providers had to meet. Member states were permitted to insist on official inspection and authorisation of all service providers, and the UK government had promised to do this.

A further element of the package would have enabled the European Commission to come forward with new guidelines on state aids to the ports sector. Here, privately owned UK ports are currently disadvantaged against state owned and publicly subsidised mainland ports like Hamburg.

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The defeat of the directive is bad not only for jobs but also for the environment as, faced with higher port costs, business will choose to ship goods by road. There will be a rush to litigation by the Commission and shipowners against the restrictive practices of Europe's ports. This resulting enforced liberalisation will be a good deal more painful for the whole ports sector than the enactment of this sensible and modest directive.

The UK government was in favour of the directive. It is really extraordinary that British Labour MEPs, under exaggerated pressure from the unions, followed the protectionist line of continental socialists in preference to that of their own ministers. It is sad that my Labour colleagues have not fulfilled their electoral promises to complete the single European market.

Andrew Duff is the Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the East of England. www.andrewduffmep.org.

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