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Thursday, Oct 10, 2002

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Britain, EU differ on key port issues

Santanu Sanyal

LONDON, Oct. 9

BRITAIN and many other member nations of the European Union (EU) do not see eye to eye on several key port and maritime issues such as the State funding of infrastructure projects for the port sector, interpretation of legislation on demarcation of the port area in navigable channel for the purpose of dredging and on how to go about in the matter of awarding contracts to private firms keen to participate in port projects.

Britain is opposed to the State funding of port projects, a view not shared by many European nations. Her Majesty's Government offers an annual grant of 7.5 million for the port sector and the part of the amount is also used for the promotion of coastal shipping. For a country, which claims to have several hundred ports of various sizes and shapes, it is not a big amount.

The situation, however, is different in many European countries where the ports are under the control of the city Governments and, therefore, enjoy a certain kind of protection and help not available to the ports in the UK. Recently, a Dutch port received State funding for setting up modern facilities for handling petroleum products. As a result, there has been a diversion of oil traffic from the nearest UK port to the Dutch port.

Understandably, Britain has not taken this development kindly, more so because the diversion has entailed job loss in the UK port concerned.

The legislation governing the jurisdiction of the port area in the navigable channel for the purpose of dredging is interpreted in different ways in Britain and other European countries. The British law calls for an environment impact assessment involving huge investment, but it is not so in the other European countries.

The relevant legislation in many European countries is interpreted in such a way that they are spared of undertaking similar assessment and, therefore, incurring expenditure.

Recently, the European Commission has proposed a set of directives on how to go about in regard to awarding contracts to private firms that are keen on participating in various port projects. The directives are to be applicable to all the EU member nations.

Even if the projects are to be implemented by the ports themselves, certain guidelines have to be followed so that there are no complaints of bias.

Initially, several private ports in Britain expressed reservations about the guidelines apprehending that it was yet another move to reduce the status of a port from a service provider to that of a landowner. There have been some compromises since then, so that a port could act both as a service provider and landowner.

Meanwhile, the EC has finalised the format to be followed by all-member nations to present the maritime statistics in a uniform manner.

With this, the comparison of the performance of the port and shipping sectors of various EU countries will become easier. An immediate fall-out of this will be that Britain will be required to express its container tonnage figures in TEUs, not as currently done.

But not every one in the UK and elsewhere is thrilled over the proposed move to achieve uniformity in format. This is because the statistics relating to imports and exports of individual commodities for the EU member nations will not be available under the new arrangement. Instead, the commodities will be classified under broad heads such as dry bulk, liquid bulk and containers.

It might be noted that the Customs authorities in Britain stopped keeping records of imports and exports of individual commodities for the EU members ever since the Union came into being some 10 years ago.

There should be trading figures available for non-EU nations. Not every one is hopeful in this matter. But then it will be wrong to presume that Britain is busy only sorting out its differences with other members of the EU over port-related issues.

The British Government has before it several important domestic port-related issues to sort out such as restructuring of the management of various ports under both trust management and municipal management and the review of the port security.

Since 1996, ever since the Labour Government came into power, the port privatisation issue is not being actively pursued, presumably because, seven out of the country's 10 major ports are already under private management.

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