The European Union is ratcheting up efforts to boost short-sea shipping with plans for an attack on customs red tape that will allow sea transport to compete with trucks and trains in moving freight among its 28 member states.
The so-called Blue Belt plan, based on simplifying customs formalities for intra-EU voyages from 2015, is viewed as the last throw of the dice in the EU’s motorways-of-the-sea program that has had little success in shifting cargo from the continent’s clogged highways.
“Europe is faced with major challenges in terms of rising congestion and pollution,” Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said. “We need short-sea shipping to fulfill its potential and provide a low-cost, environmentally friendly transport solution, taking more goods off (trucks) and off our congested roads.”
Short-sea shipping has been hamstrung by the fact that a vessel sailing from, say, Hamburg to Naples is classified as an international voyage subject to customs clearance, while a truck or a train traveling between the German and Italian cities, is viewed as a domestic journey.
Freight forwarders complain that the heavy administrative burden at ports causes additional costs and delays, putting intra-Europe shipping at a significant disadvantage. Ships can wait for hours — sometimes days — in port for customs clearance.
Ships operating regular services on intra-EU routes and transporting mainly EU goods are exempt from customs, but this only covers 10 to 15 percent of EU maritime traffic, mainly ferries.
The European Commission plans to make it easier to obtain so-called Regular Shipping Service status by reducing the time an operator must wait for approval from 45 days now to 15 days. Shipping lines also will be able to apply in advance for customs clearance from member states so they can quickly launch services when market opportunities arise. The RSS is restricted to vessels calling only at EU ports.
Brussels also plans to publish proposals by the end of the year for a harmonized electronic cargo declaration. The so-called eManifest will enable the 90 percent of ships that carry EU and non-EU cargoes and call at non-EU ports, such as Norway, Russia and North Africa, to provide information on the status of cargoes to customs.
The Blue Belt plan is flanked by a program unveiled in May to improve the efficiency of the EU’s second-tier ports to spread traffic more evenly across the European waterfront and boost opportunities for short-sea shipping.
A fifth of Europe’s seaborne trade passes through just three ports: Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg. “More and more ships go to the best-performing ports,” Kallas said. “Oceangoing ships are making longer and more inefficient journeys to find the better services. Shipping companies within Europe cannot develop new short-sea links where a fast turnaround at both ends is so important.”
There is widespread scepticism about the EU’s short-sea shipping campaign. Critics point out that the majority of short-sea services launched in the past few years have required generous subsidies from the motorways-of-the-sea budget. Even Italy’s Grimaldi group, Europe’s most successful and enthusiastic short-sea operator, has benefited from handouts from Brussels.
The bottom line is that trucks will continue to dominate intra-EU transport because they are the cheapest and most flexible mode, though trains and inland waterways are taking advantage of rising fuel prices and driver shortages to make inroads into selected markets.
Contact Bruce Barnard at firstname.lastname@example.org.