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EU: Facing Overcrowded Roads, Transport Ministers Lay Ambitious Plans To Send Freight To Sea

European Union transport ministers have given support to proposals to increase the use of coastal shipping for both passengers and freight. The purpose is to ease pressure on Europe's overcrowded road system, and to help the environment by cutting pollution. But given the dominance of road and air transport, is this a practical proposition?

Prague, 6 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes it seems you have to go backwards in order to go forwards. As Europe's roads become ever more choked with traffic, movement becomes more difficult and dangerous, pollution grows, and economic costs rise.

Periodically one hears calls for the revival of the rail system, but little happens and the number of heavy road trucks just keeps growing. Now European Union transport ministers have hit upon another idea: increasing the use of coastal shipping to transport both passengers and cargo around Europe.

As far as passengers go, the notion conjures up the great days of sea travel, which lingered on into the 1970s. What could be more leisurely than sitting out on deck on a summer voyage from say, Marseilles in France to Varna in Bulgaria?

Sadly, that probably won't happen. In today's stressed world, there simply is not the time to re-create the habits of previous generations.

But freight is another matter. Already some 42 percent of Europe's total intra-EU freight goes via coastal shipping, both in the form of roll-on roll-off traffic and containers. Expanding that share would seem a logical step.

With this in view, a weekend meeting of EU transport ministers in Gijon, Spain, supported plans to make sea transport quicker and easier by slashing customs bureaucracy and opening port services to competition.

In a statement, the ministers said they had agreed to create what they called "European motorways of the sea." Reuters quotes officials as saying these routes would initially link the Baltic Sea with the Atlantic coast, the western Mediterranean and the Adriatic.

Giles Gantalet, the spokesman for EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio, says there is really no choice but to move away from road transport: "There is no alternative. We have to face the reality that there is congestion in the center of Europe. The trends for growth of road transport in the next 20 years are going to create a situation which is just not sustainable, which is not tenable."

He says that to maintain economic growth, sustainable means of transport must be developed. With this in mind, the ministers agreed to work towards concrete steps such as simplifying customs procedures. "They want firstly to simplify, really and drastically, the customs proceedings. And so they want to reduce from more than 50 different papers to only five types of papers -- according to the goods in question -- which would connect all European Union ports."

At the Gijon meeting, Commissioner de Palacio raised the possibility that satellite tracking systems might make it possible, by following a ship's course, to do without custom checks altogether for journeys within the EU. After all, says Gantalet, road transport is now also free of customs checks within the EU.

The initiative has been welcomed by the European Community Shipowners Association (ECSA). Speaking in Brussels, ECSA Secretary-General Alphons Guinier said growth in coastal shipping had been on a par in the last few years with that of the road-haulage industry. He said there has been heavy investment in new vessels, and he continued, "If then you have, [in addition], political declarations supporting efforts to increase [coastal shipping], that is of course welcomed."

Guinier said ECSA is already working on the points listed in the Gijon statement, including the customs-documentation issue. He described as also important the drive to liberalize port services. This means opening up to competitive tender the various services offered by ports, such as freight handling, stowage, and palettage, in order to make these services more efficient.

The European Sea Ports Organization (ESPO), also based in Brussels, was more cautious in its approach. ESPO Secretary-General Patrick Verhoeven welcomed the initiative, but said, "We are a bit hesitant about the concept 'motorways of the sea,' as it is not clearly defined at the moment."

Verhoeven goes on to articulate ESPO's concerns: "We are not quite sure what the consequences are, and one of our concerns is that of course there will be public financing involved in this, and when you talk about public financing there is always the risk of distortion of competition and certain shifts of trade from one port to another."

He says that Western European seaports are generally in good shape, whether they lie on the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic, or the Mediterranean. But he says the Eastern European harbors, by comparison, are not so well equipped. A number of EU accession countries, including the Baltic states, have observer status at the organization. The latest to gain that status is Bulgaria.