European ports hopeful about breakbulk despite geopolitics

European ports hopeful about breakbulk despite geopolitics

Antwerp port.

After a mixed performance in 2017, Europe’s top breakbulk ports face a complicated 2018, despite above-trend European GDP growth, due to the threat posed by tariffs and reduced demand from the reinstatement of sanctions against Iran. (Above: Antwerp port.) Photo credit:

Europe’s top breakbulk ports have had a mixed performance during the past year and are likely to be the biggest victims of the Trump administration’s steel tariffs and Washington’s reinstatement of sanctions on Iran.

Antwerp, the market leader, booked a 4.8 percent growth in conventional breakbulk volume in 2017, to 10.3 million metric tons (11.3 million tons), driven by a 7.8 percent increase in imports and exports of iron and steel, to 8.35 million metric tons, with rising shipments from India, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam offsetting a 44 percent slump in imports from China to 657,000 metric tons because of anti-dumping measures by the European Union.

But breakbulk was the only cargo segment to decline in the first three months of 2018 — Antwerp’s best ever quarter — with the 3.1 percent drop to 2.51 million metric tons attributed to the volatility of nonferrous metals and wood traffic and further containerization of cargoes.

Rotterdam’s conventional breakbulk cargo grew 9.8 percent year over year in 2017 to 6.46 million metric tons, driven by the shipment of monopiles for offshore wind projects, and higher steel and aluminum shipments.

Traffic slumped however, by just over 2 percent in the first quarter of 2018 to 1.4 million metric tons because of lower shipments of steel slabs and few loadings of turbine foundations for positioning in offshore wind farms.

Zeebrugge’s breakbulk volume crashed 29.8 percent in the first quarter to 261,000 metric tons from a year ago when the last of 80 giant modules shipped from South Korea and China were transported on to Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas plant approximately 600 kilometers (373 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.   

Breakbulk — value-added jobs and activity

Despite the slide in volumes, European ports are enthusiastic fans of breakbulk because it creates much more value and jobs on the waterfront than more flamboyant cargo sectors, notably containers, which hit record highs in Rotterdam and Antwerp in 2017.

“With a [multipurpose cargo] volume of 1.4 million tons, these may constitute no more than 1.5 percent of total throughput, but their depth of added value and impact on jobs make them an important element in the port of Hamburg’s cargo mix,” Germany’s leading port authority said. Around 15 percent of approximately 9,000 ship calls a year at the port are made by breakbulk and heavy-lift vessels or specialist units for rolling or reefer cargoes.

The lower breakbulk cargo volumes across the North Europe waterfront does not necessarily mean ports are losing business. Antwerp’s traffic has almost halved since 2007 when it reached 19.8 million tons, but it still handles much of the “lost” volume that now arrives in containers.

The industry’s potential going forward will be gauged by the price paid for Luxembourg-based Euroports, a major breakbulk player with 22 terminals in Europe and three in China, that was put up for sale by its owners — Brookfield Asset Management, Antin Infrastructure Partners, and Arcus Infrastructure Partners — in October. There was speculation the sale, being handled by Goldman Sachs and Citi, could fetch €1 billion ($1.17 billion), but so far there have been no indications of a deal on the horizon.  

Contact Bruce Barnard at




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