Ports: transport MEPs favour clear public funding rules, but not free market access

Draft rules to improve the transparency of public funding for key EU ports and common rules for ports wishing to restrict the number of service providers were approved by the Transport Committee on Monday. But the committee rejected a proposed “one size fits all” EU-wide free market access rule for suppliers of port services such as towage, mooring and pilotage. Ports themselves must be able to decide how their port services are organised, so as to ensure security and safety, say MEPs.

The draft rules aim to boost the efficiency of seaports in the trans-European transport network, used by the bulk of EU maritime traffic, so as to make EU industry more competitive, attract investment and foster job creation in EU coastal regions.

“We have been able to dismiss the forced free market access to port services. Especially for safety and security concerns, ports must be able to decide on the organisation of port services”, said rapporteur Knut Fleckenstein (S&D, DE), who is steering the proposal through Parliament. “For the first time in the course of the long discussions on the port package we have the ports, the terminal operators and the unions on board.”

“The provisions on financial transparency lay the groundwork for the European Commission’s competition directorate-general to deliver more clarity on rules for public investment in ports, for which the sector has long been calling. We looking forward to the timely presentation of the draft on Block Exemptions, which will include a framework for ports”, he added.

No “one size fits all” free market access for service providers

Whereas the European Commission proposal would have made free market access the key EU-wide principle for the supply of port services such as mooring, bunkering, towage or pilotage, the committee insists that “a single system would not be appropriate, as the EU port system includes many different models for the organisation of port services”.

It therefore amended the proposal so that “existing port management models established at national level in the member states can be maintained.”

Transparency of public funding and fees for using port infrastructure and services

If ports receive public funds, this must be shown transparently in the accounts, MEPs say. Separate accounts should be kept for publicly-funded activity or investment and other activities, they add.

To prevent price abuse in the absence of fair market mechanisms, arrangements should be made to ensure that fees are “not disproportionate” to the economic value of the services provided and are set in a transparent and non-discriminatory way, says the committee.

Port infrastructure charges should be set, transparently and autonomously, “in accordance with the port’s own commercial and investment strategy”, say MEPs, stressing that port users are regularly consulted when charges are defined or changed.

Each EU member state should designate one or more independent bodies to handle complaints. Member states may designate already existing bodies, but the users need to know where to file their complaint and complaints need to be dealt with independently.,

A “toolbox” for organising port services

MEPs backed proposed common rules for member states and port managers which wish to limit the number of service providers, to set minimum requirements for them or to provide services themselves, as an “internal operator”, instead.

Where minimum requirements for port services providers are put in place, they should be limited to a clearly-defined set of conditions concerning professional qualifications, but should also take account of equipment needed to provide the port service, and meet maritime safety and environmental needs as well as national social standards, MEPs add.

MEPs clarified the list of “justified cases” for the limitation of service providers, adding “scarcity of waterside space”, port traffic characteristics or the need to provide “safe, secure or environmentally sustainable port operations”.

Staff training and working conditions

These draft rules would not affect the application of EU member states’ social and labour rules, say MEPs, who nonetheless stress that staff must be granted working conditions on the basis of binding national, regional or local social standards.

Training of new recruits and lifelong training of staff are essential to ensure port workers’ health and safety and to protect the quality of services, MEPs say, stressing that member states must ensure that relevant training is provided for every worker in the port sector.