EU ports directive set for defeat

CONTROVERSIAL plans to force Europe's ports to open up services - including pilotage and dockside handling - to competition look set to be defeated next week, even though the legislation would not be enforced until 2052.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor, in Brussels

CONTROVERSIAL plans to force Europe's ports to open up services - including pilotage and dockside handling - to competition look set to be defeated next week, even though the legislation would not be enforced until 2052.

The biggest impact of the proposals from the European Commission would be in Britain, where all the major ports are in private hands. If approved, jobs in Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich would be at risk from foreign operators.

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It means that privatised ports would have to sub contract their own services under so-called liberalisation of port facilities to stimulate competition and make them transparent.

The most controversial aspect of the plans is pilot services - in the UK provided by Trinity House - which opponents say would be dangerous. Employing pilots who do not know the seas surrounding and entrances to ports would hazard shipping and could lead to the risk of a major terrorist incident.

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Britain would be caught up in the Europe-wide policy which is mainly aimed at continental ports such as Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and Barcelona which receive so-called hidden subsidies from their own governments.

However, when the first reading of the directive on market access to port services is put before the European Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg next week, Euro MPs are expected to reject it, forcing the Commission into a major rethink.

In a rare show of unity, MEPs from the four political parties representing the East of England will all vote to throw it out.

Geoffrey Van Orden (Conservative) said the plan would be disastrous for local ports, Tom Wise (UK Independence Party) said it would be devastating, Andrew Duff (Liberal Democrat) described it as a great mistake and Richard Howitt (Labour) said it was deeply misjudged.

Similar proposals from the Commission were rejected in 2003, but they have not been brought back by the Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot and championed by German MEP Georg > Jarzembowski,, who is chairman of the Parliament's Committee on Transport and Tourism. His committee narrowly approved the plans by 24 votes to 23 when it was discussed on November 22.

At a seminar for journalists in Brussels this week, Mr Jarzembowski said: “We have to create a more transparent competition between ports. Throwing out these proposals will not bring that.”

He said member states of the EU should be forced to disclose the financial support given to ports. “State aid distorts competition.”

He said Europe had to ask itself the following questions. ”Do we want to see community law operating in sea ports?” If the answer was yes, then the Parliament was under an obligation to approve the Commission's proposals.

To soften the blow, companies currently providing port services would be saved from having to go out to public tender for 46 years.

Under Europe co-decision making process aimed at making the European Parliament more meaningful, the Commission's proposal must be approved by a simple majority of those voting. If the measure were to be accepted, at the second reading stage it would have to be accepted by an absolute majority of Euro MPs.

Opposition across the 25 member states of the EU has been organised by the European Transport Workers' Federation, whose members will be demonstrating outside the Strasbourg parliament building next week.

Green MEP Michael Cramer from Germany, also speaking at the seminar, said: “I know of not one national or regional government in Europe which wants this package, I do not understand why there is this pressure to push the package through. If the British Labour government, the Dutch Conservative government and the past and present German government don't support it, why should we?”

Afterwards, East of England Liberal Democrat Andrew Duff said: “The inclusion of pilotage is a great mistake and could be hazardous.”

Tory Mr Van Orden added: “East Anglia's ports are competitive and efficient and are crucial to our local economy. I am appalled that the Commission has failed to carry out a proper consultation or impact assessment of its proposed legislation which will be more of a hindrance than a help.

“More than 2,000 people work at Felixstowe/Harwich port and 10,000 are involved in port-related business. These new EU laws would be a massive deterrent to future investment and would put jobs at risk.”

Labour's Richard Howitt said: “The port operators affected in the region - Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich - and their workers are against what is a deeply misjudged proposal.”

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