28 November 2013

Is the European Parliament steering towards yet another rejection of the Commission's proposals on market access to port services? Some MEPs mentioned this as a distinct possibility in the Committee on Transport (TRAN), on 26 November, as Knut Fleckenstein (S&D, Germany) presented his report. To be clear, the overall impression after the debate was that MEPs would be capable of turning down the text again. What is already certain is that amendments for rejection will be tabled.

The Commission's proposal establishes freedom to provide services as a general principle for a whole range of port services, such as pilotage (steering of ships by a pilot from the port upon entry or exit from ports), towing or bunkering (refuelling). Space constraints could justify setting limits on the number of providers in certain ports, but operators should be chosen in that case by means of calls for bids. Additional obligations would also be put in place on the transparency of financing, especially if public funds are used.

Even if the Commission claims to have learned from the past, the fact is that it is venturing into special territory. MEPs have already rejected proposals for the liberalisation of port services in Europe on two occasions, in 2003 and 2006. The entire sector was highly mobilised on both occasions and some demonstrations became violent. ESPO, the organisation that represents the EU's main sea ports, is still very critical of the proposals.

Yet the Commission has gone back on the offensive, watering down its proposals from earlier versions. This time, for example, it has excluded services that at the time sparked the most intense reactions: cargo handling – the job of dock workers, who attacked Parliament's buildings in Strasbourg in 2006 – and passenger services. The rapporteur also wants to exclude from the text dredging (removing sand and other sediments that build up in ports) and pilotage. Several other MEPs also proposed to exclude mooring and towing.


There is no doubt that the text is likely to be seriously watered down by MEPs. The rapporteur wants to expand criteria that could limit the number of service providers and intends to give ports more leeway to modulate fees in terms of their business strategy (in contrast with the Commission's approach of common pricing principles) and to introduce more flexibility in arrangements for organising the supervisory authorities the Commission wants to put in place.

So what would be left of the proposal? And does it still make sense to regulate? Several TRAN members raised precisely these questions. Chairman Brian Simpson (S&D, UK) said he could sense the wind of revolt “for the third time”. “No doubt that would mean we will get another proposal from the Commission in another three years' time.”

“An impression of déjà vu, and watered down on top of that. There's not much point to this legislation,” said Inés Ayala Sender (S&D, Spain). “Chronicle of a death foretold,” predicted Luis de Grandes Pascual (EPP, Spain), who nevertheless finds that the Commission's proposal remains very timid. Philip Bradbourn (ECR, UK) announced that he would table an amendment demanding rejection of the text, which he considers far too interventionist and bureaucratic. Ditto for Sabine Wils (GUE-NGL, Germany).

Given these forecasts, Fleckenstein called on the shadow rapporteurs to clearly state their intentions. A meeting between the rapporteur and the shadow rapporteurs is scheduled on 12 December.

The deadline for tabling amendments is 3 December. The vote in TRAN is set for 11 February 2014 and the text will be put to the vote in plenary in March.

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