The European Council has finally acknowledged that the European maritime industry is of vital importance to the EU. An important development according to SWZ|Maritime’s Editor-in-Chief Antoon Oosting, because it is now included in Horizon Europe, the programme worth 100 billion euros for R&D in Europe.

In every issue of SWZ|Maritime, Oosting writes an opinion piece about the maritime industry or a particular sector within it. In the June 2020 issue, he discusses how the European Council now recognises the maritime industry as strategically important and what this may mean for the sector.

Did it really take a Frenchman like ex-Minister of Finance Thierry Breton to become EU Commissioner of Internal Market (since March 2019) to recognise the strategic value of the maritime industry for Europe’s future? Who knows, but the French have a reputation of politicians that do think about the future and also dare to formulate a strategy for it. Nevertheless, the most important fact is that since the 5th of June, the maritime industry is now included in Horizon Europe, the programme worth 100 billion euros for the development of innovation and R&D in Europe.

The developments of the last months are overshadowed by all the news about battling the Covid-19 crisis and its devastating consequences for the health of so many of us. But also for our economy that has to provide the incomes to survive financially and the means to invest in what we need so badly, like the research for life-saving vaccines. Yet, on that 5th of June, the Council (of Telecommunications Ministers) of the European Union, presided by Oleg Butkovic, Minister of the Sea, Transport and Infrastructure of Croatia, met for a video conference.

In that conference, the European Council concluded that the future of shipping and inland navigation is carbon-neutral, zero-accidents, automated and competitive. The conclusions stress the vital importance of these sectors in bringing essential goods to European citizens, as highlighted by their key role during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Council particularly commends the crucial role of seafarers, inland navigation workers and port workers in keeping the supply chains open.

The future of shipping and inland navigation is carbon-neutral, zero-accidents, automated and competitive

Declaration of Opatija

The text also endorses the vision for the EU waterborne sector as set out in the declaration adopted at the informal maritime ministerial meeting organised by the Croatian presidency in Opatija, Croatia, on 11 March 2020. Being scheduled just on the eve of most European countries going into lockdown, it is easily understood that this meeting did not make the news headlines. However, for the maritime industry, it is still good to bring to mind what the Croatian Ministry for the Sea, Transport and Infrastructure had to say.

‘A sustainable, state-of-the-art and competitive EU waterborne transport sector has been a priority for the Croatian presidency from the beginning. And the Covid-19 crisis has shown that this vision is as relevant as ever. We will achieve it by investing in digital transformation, in safety and in people who work in the sector. That is what gives, and will continue to give, the EU waterborne transport sector its competitive edge,’ Butkovic stated at this meeting.

The so-called Opatija Declaration provides guidelines for the Member States for the development of maritime policy by 2030 in the context of protection of the marine environment, with a focus on supporting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships and further digitalisation in maritime and inland navigation.

Picture by Hans de Wilde (SWZ|Maritime, June 2020).

Of strategic interest

In the conclusions that were adopted on the 5th of June, the European Council recalls the vital and strategic importance of shipping, inland waterway transport and related services for the supply of essential goods and for the health, wellbeing and quality of life of European citizens. The Council therefore stresses the crucial role of European shipping during the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring the regular flow of trade by sea and operation of the supply chains, as smoothly as possible, for the undisrupted availability of basic services, commodities and medicines. The Council notes that this role is paramount for the EU and recalls once again, against this background, that the EU waterborne transport sector is of EU strategic interest for its integrity of supply.

In the Opatija Declaration, the Council also recognises the crucial role of seafarers and inland navigation workers, including their right to fair treatment in this respect and the need to alleviate the negative socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the waterborne transport sector. Moreover, the Council reiterated the essential role of waterborne transport in providing jobs, strengthening European economic competitiveness and contributing substantially to the European GDP.

The Council reaffirms that the European waterborne transport sector faces significant challenges and that further action is needed

The Council reaffirms that the European waterborne transport sector faces significant challenges and that further action is needed to maintain and further develop attractive and sustainable, smart, and safe waterborne transport that offers well-paid jobs.

And now the implementation

By adopting the conclusions now, the Council calls upon the Member States to work together, in close cooperation with other EU institutional bodies and agencies and with industry and social partners, to undertake appropriate initiatives and milestones. Taking the Opatija Declaration as a basis, the EU’s waterborne transport policy beyond 2020 is to be further developed and implemented.

The maritime industry is very satisfied with these policy decisions of the European Council as it is endorsing the agenda the lobby of the European maritime industry proposed itself. It also opens access to the Horizon Europe programme for the development of innovation and R&D.

‘Firstly, the Council conclusions acknowledge the strategic importance of the European waterborne transport sector, in which the European maritime technology industry plays a key role. Secondly, the conclusions clearly show the relevance of the Strategic Research Agenda of the Waterborne Technology Platform. But I am particularly pleased to note the Council’s specific support for the candidate co-programmed Partnership Zero-emission Waterborne Transport in the framework of Horizon Europe,’ stated SEA Europe’s Secretary General, Christophe Tytgat. SEA Europe represents close to one hundred per cent of the European shipbuilding industry in sixteen EU-nations.

A level playing field

The third and not least reason Tytgat is glad, is that the European Council expresses the need for a global level playing field ‘to enhance Europe’s global maritime leadership’, which he sees as an important political signal. Tytgat: ‘Without a level playing fi eld, there is a risk that the European waterborne transport sector will be dominated or (partially) taken over by other continents, and that thereby Europe will not only lose its capability to deliver upon the objectives of the Green Deal, but will lose its strategic autonomy as well. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the execution of the objectives and areas of intervention as laid down in the Council starts as soon as possible, in close cooperation between the European Commission (EC), Member States, and the broader waterborne industry.’

The European shipbuilding industry is afraid that the Chinese will take over the last flourishing niche branches in Europe, especially the construction of cruise ships and dredgers. Shipowners are also happy about the conclusions. ‘The vision set out in the declaration fully reflects the ambitions of our sector and sets the direction in which we have been moving rapidly towards,’ said Martin Dorsman, Secretary-General of ECSA, the European Community of Shipowners’ Associations that promotes the interests of twenty member associations in the EU, the UK and Norway.

There are fears the Chinese will take over the last flourishing niche branches in Europe

Referring to the conclusions, ECSA, together with other European and international partners and institutions, is now strongly urging governments to designate maritime workers as key workers to ensure crew changes are able to take place and seafarers’ rights are upheld. Crew relief is vital for health, safety and welfare of maritime workers and the proper functioning of seaborne supply lines, ECSA says.

EU Recovery Plan

Where Horizon Europe is meant for the longer term, the maritime industry can now also hope for financial support in the near future. At the beginning of this month, the EC presented its recovery plan to financially help the EU through the corona crisis. The plan still needs to be discussed by the finance ministers, heads of government and the European Parliament.

Trade association Netherlands Maritime Technology (NMT) reports that after much digital lobbying in recent weeks, the most important political result is that our sector is prominently mentioned in this recovery plan. Among other things, the EC states that a substantial budget will be made available for making ships more sustainable: ‘To help create more jobs, there will also be a focus on accelerating the production and deployment of sustainable vehicles and vessels as well as alternative fuels.’ ‘Bright spots for the maritime sector!’, NMT says.

In the meantime, the EU’s leading states France and Germany have stated their willingness to support their maritime industry. The German government has approved one billion euros in crisis aid over the next two years for new ships and projects in the German maritime sector. The money is coming out of a special 130-billion-euro fund created by the government to offset the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is just waiting now for other EU-states to see what their maritime industry means to them

And most recently, the French president Macron in a tv-speech announced he wants to accelerate the nation’s maritime strategy, claiming the European nation is now the second largest maritime power in the world. Earlier during the crisis, France already bailed out its flagship carrier CMA CGM with more than one billion euros in state aid. It is just waiting now for other EU-states to see what their maritime industry means to them and what they are willing to invest to maintain this sector in Europe.

This opinion piece was written by SWZ|Maritime’s Editor-in-Chief Antoon Oosting and published in SWZ|Maritime’s June 2020 issue.