Rough waters ahead for port services directive

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Series Details Vol.7, No.41, 8.11.01, p21
Publication Date 08/11/2001
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Date: 08/11/01

By Laurence Frost

THE stage is set for a showdown next week when members of the European Parliament vote on a divisive proposal to break up monopolies in port services.

A broad alliance of business organisations has written to deputies urging them to resist a bid by influential Christian Democrat MEP Georg Jarzembowski to torpedo the proposed port services directive, which will introduce competitive tendering for cargo handling and other services.

The coalition represents ship owners and freight-handling firms as well as household name manufacturers and industrial-goods producers which all argue that current delays and inefficiencies in port services are a brake on Europe's economy. "Supply chain operations are so complex that they depend on efficient and reliable transport services," said Nicolette van der Jagt of the European Shippers' Council, whose blue-chip members include GlaxoSmithKline, Hewlett Packard, TotalFinaElf, ICI, Philips and Corus.

Shipping delays affect all stages of a production cycle, she added, from imports of raw materials to exports of finished goods. But Jarzembowski, who drafted the parliament's position on the directive, believes it goes too far. "The Commission hasn't proved that there are any cases of denied market access," he said. The Hamburg MEP is arguing for the same exemptions for cargo handlers and boat towing services that were rejected by the transport committee, where his report failed to win the backing of his own conservative EPP group.

Jarzembowski says the added bureaucracy and commercial uncertainty of tendering would "disrupt" the shipping business. "The danger is that you will have to think twice before putting up investment," he said. "Can you imagine the Ford Company or BMW having to give up their plants for tendering?"

European ship owners' body ECSA, a member of the coalition supporting the directive, says it has received dozens of members' complaints about delays and excessive charges at ports that are protected from full competition. Some major freight companies are even understood to avoid southern European ports as a matter of policy.

The coalition is baffled by Jarzembowski's apparent change of heart on market opening. The MEP has made a name for himself as a champion of liberalisation in the transport and communications sectors over two assembly terms.

He dismissed speculation that he had bowed to political pressure at home, where the port of Hamburg made known its opposition to the directive. "This is not a Hamburg policy," he said. "I'm not against liberalisation, but I'm against unnecessary legislation."

Dock workers in Marseille, Calais and other European ports went on strike earlier this week in protest against the proposal. Ferries between the French and British ports of Calais and Dover were suspended for 24 hours from Tuesday afternoon following a strike call by the International Dock Workers' Council, which said the EU proposals were "clearly anti-union".

The European Parliament is due to vote on a divisive proposal to break up monopolies in port services.

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