EU NEEDS TO REFOCUS ITS PRIORITIES IN WAKE OF FERRY DISASTER

EU NEEDS TO REFOCUS ITS PRIORITIES IN WAKE OF FERRY DISASTER

Some good might yet come from the sinking of the Greek ferry Express Samina off the Aegean island of Paros on Tuesday.

The tragedy, which killed 65 people, came just a week before a meeting of European Union transport ministers in Luxembourg that is to consider plans to accelerate the phase out of aging single-hulled oil tankers as part of a high-profile campaign against maritime pollution.The ministers were spurred to action after the Erika, a 25-year-old 37,000-ton tanker, broke in two in heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay last December, spewing its cargo of heavy fuel along France's coastline. France pledged to use its EU presidency in the second half of the year to drive older suspect tankers from European waters.

There's nothing wrong with this except that the EU seems to have its priorities wrong. Tankers may pollute beaches and kill birds, seals and other marine life, but they represent less of a threat to human life than passenger ferries. Hundreds of Europeans have lost their lives in the past decade from ferry disasters, the worst being the sinking of the Estonia in the Baltic Sea in 1994 in which 852 people lost their lives. Yet tankers remain Public Enemy No. 1.

The Express Samina may help to focus minds on passenger safety, not least because the Express Artemis, another ferry owned by the same company, ran aground on Friday as it was about to dock in Naxos harbor.

This should give food for thought to delegates attending the International Maritime Organization's influential environmental protection committee, which will meet in London next week to consider a slew of proposals to tighten retirement rules for single-hulled tankers.

Nobody could argue with a campaign for clean seas. But the problem should be put in perspective rather than hyped to the general public, which then puts pressure on politicians to take populist action that ignores technical and economic realities.

Fact is, the seas are less at risk from oil pollution than at any time in the last 40 years, despite a massive increase in crude oil transport. The 30,000 metric tons of oil spilled from tankers in 1998-99 were the lowest during any two-year period since records began in the mid-1960s. The volume of crude oil and refined products transported by sea increases every year, reaching 2 billion metric tons by 1999.

And, the percentage of spills as a proportion of the volume carried decreases yearly. In fact, the ratio has declined sixfold in the past 20 years, from 0.03 percent in 1978 to 0.005 percent last year. What's more, accidental spills from tankers accounted for less than 5 percent of all marine oil pollution in 1995-99, with fixed facilities like terminals, pipelines and refineries doing most of the damage.

But it only takes an Erika to undo all the progress and revive the image of a greedy Big Industry always putting profits and pollution before people. The Erika wasn't a rustbucket from the Third World. It was an Italian-owned ship, chartered by a French oil giant, given a seaworthiness certificate from an Italian classification society, refused entry to a French port when it was in trouble and registered in Malta, a country with a dubious maritime safety record that is currently negotiating to join the EU.

Cyprus, another applicant for membership, also has a questionable reputation.

France, Belgium and Germany want to accelerate an internationally agreed timetable for getting rid of single-hulled tankers in favor of safer double-skinned vessels. They say single-hull tankers should cease trading when they reach 26 years of age with a cut-off date of 2008 even if they haven't reached retirement age.

The European Commission, the EU's executive, has proposed 28 years with a 2010 cut-off.

The trouble is that even the commission's more modest plan would create peaks when ships reach retirement age - in 2003 when 280 tankers would leave the fleet and in 2010 - threatening to disrupt the global flow of oil.

Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark will propose a compromise on Monday that will avoid peaks and give responsible shipowners some leeway. And, it looks like winning the day.

Greece always tries to block any interference in the operations of its shipping fleet, the world's largest. But after the Express Samina tragedy it may just sit tight.

The sinking of the ferry should shame the EU into taking tough action, not just on maritime pollution, but the safety of ferry passengers in its own waters.

It could make a start by putting pressure on Greece. Athens fought a successful campaign to exempt local shipowners from tougher international safety standards imposed after the sinking of the Estonia six years ago. That means aging vessels that would not be allowed to sail between, say, Newcastle and Gothenburg are still plying Greek domestic routes with locals and holiday makers from the rest of Europe.

And they say the EU is a single market.