European port policies – discussion by Sec. Gen. ESPO

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European port policies – discussion by Sec. Gen. ESPO

The secretary general of the European Sea Ports Organisation, Isabelle Ryckbost, discusses the challenges for Europe’s ports

At a recent meeting of Europe’s transport ministers in Valletta, Malta, the ministers of transport issued a declaration on the aims and priorities that will guide Europe’s maritime transport policy until 2020 and beyond. Dubbed the Valletta Declaration, and adopted under the patronage of the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the paper sets out key areas for improvement in Europe’s maritime sector, and fundamentally addresses three areas: competitiveness, digitalisation and sustainability.

Recently, the global shipping industry has suffered setbacks due to over-capacity, which has carried with it concern that consolidation will be necessary to solve the problem. The declaration’s focus on competitiveness offers some solutions, and its overall vision for a connected and forward-looking shipping sector promises bold efforts on the part of the EU.

PEN spoke to Isabelle Ryckbost, secretary general of the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO), about  the declaration, the need for the combined efforts of ships and ports to meet sustainability targets, her organisation’s priorities for trade facilitation and the ways in which Europe could improve and grow the competitiveness of its ports.


From the perspective of the ports, ESPO believes that the most important thing to growing competitiveness is to ensure that ports are well connected and state-of-the-art. There are so many challenges that European ports are facing, and not only ports, but other parts of the maritime industry as well, including the increasing size of vessels, the greening of the fleet, the increasing market power, the alliances on the ship side and decarbonisation. There’s also Brexit, and a worldwide trend towards rising economic nationalism. One concern is that if, because of Brexit, the customs union with the UK is given up, some of Europe’s ports might have to be physically reorganised, because they will have to dedicate space for operational checks, and so on.

These are all big challenges, and addressing them will oblige ports to invest in new infrastructure. Developing new port infrastructure is not always about increasing capacity; it’s also about adding safety and security, and responding to environmental concerns.

All of these areas have a strong impact on infrastructure, and some of these investments in port infrastructure are bankable – you can find private investors, and they will likely see a return on their investment within the short to medium term – but some are not that bankable. Investments of this kind are usually just as necessary, but for the port authority there is no return on its investment within an acceptable term. Therefore a grant component in Europe’s infrastructure policy is necessary. You can work with other financial instruments, with loans, with public private partnerships and so on, but some public interest investments need a grant component.

Investments from outside Europe are another important source. We very much welcome the global interest in our ports, although if it concerns critical assets and essential port infrastructure – for example, the ownership of the land – they should be considered as strategic assets and not be given away too easily. But for all the other investments in ports, there shouldn’t be any legislative initiative to limit or forbid investments in the ports from outside Europe, if the rules are respected.


The second priority, which is aligned with the digitalisation agenda of the Valletta Declaration, is the plea for trade facilitation and administrative simplification. In the first place, the emphasis should be on harmonising and simplifying the data.

There is a general feeling in the European Commission and at the national government level that the ‘reporting only once’ principle should be adopted. For instance, when filling out a tax form in Belgium, you only have to fill in things that are new, and you don’t have to reintroduce all of the fixed elements. Governments also want that to apply to shipping. It’s a fantastic principle, but in the shipping business there’s a very limited scope for it because only very limited data are static data; most of the data regarding the ship and the cargo are dynamic, and changeable. If that principle is to be applied, it needs to better respond to the reality.

There is also the discussion of the European maritime ‘single window environment’, which means that from the ship side one would pass all the information through a single channel, whether that is a national channel or a European single window. Such an idea could receive much support if this single window has the power, the competence and the responsibility to process these massive amounts of data and distribute them, correctly, to the respective relevant authorities. If not, this would mean that all the different authorities – and port authorities are only one of several relevant authorities – receiving the information are getting the whole package at once, and not just the data that they need. This would move the burden from the ship side to the land side and to the different authorities, but without simplifying the maritime trade at all.

This is something that ESPO is working and focusing on as it is unfair to say that the single window idea is being blocked by the ports. For a start, many of the formalities that complicate the process do not originate with the port, although the port has to deal with them – many are asked on the basis of national, European or international legislation. For example, ships entering a port must communicate how much cargo of certain types they are carrying, whether that is food, alcohol or cigarettes. This is not a formality that is requested by the ports, although it is the port that must administer it; it is asked on behalf of customs as part of anti-smuggling legislation. That is something we cannot avoid, or advocate against, because we are not collecting that information on our own behalf, and in that respect sometimes the role of port authorities in this whole process is a bit overestimated.

ESPO would definitely like to see the process simplified, in which case we would address all of the respective authorities and legislation – be it international, European or national – and see what can actually be simplified. For the single window aspect, ESPO understands that for the ships as data providers, sending that data in one package is simpler, but then someone will have to unfold it on the land side otherwise the bulk will be sent to everyone, and that isn’t simplifying anything. Simplification is really the main facet of our agenda for digitalisation.

© Pedro Szekely


The third, but not the least, priority for Europe’s ports is the sustainable agenda for ports. Sustainability has always been, from the beginning of ESPO, an important topic because port authorities are usually very close to their local environment and communities. In fact, 90% of European ports are urban, or are otherwise very near to urban areas, and in terms of the ownership and the governance of European ports, one-third have their municipalities as shareholders.

You can imagine then, that the port-city relationship is often very close, and that ports need to receive their licence to operate and grow. They want to constantly ensure that they are open to the concerns of the populations and cities surrounding the ports, and they want to address these concerns.

Through their ability to attract business and tourism, ports are a combination of public and commercial interests, meaning that they want to work towards sustainability in a proactive way. One of the issues on top of ESPO’s agenda is decarbonisation, and in June we had our conference in Barcelona, Spain, on the topic of climate change.

We saw there that a port is in fact a mix of transport, energy and industry. The three pillars are not equally important for all ports, but we see that for a lot of them, at least two of the three pillars are present.

The shipping sector should also contribute in terms of decarbonisation in the maritime industry on the transport side. We are very much aware that shipping is not the biggest source of CO2 emissions but everyone has to make an effort, and that includes shipping. Therefore, there should be a global target set within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for shipping, and quite urgently; this way, there can also be a roadmap for achieving this target.

© Sam Greenhalgh

Then, on the land side, the ports will of course have to make every effort to comply with the national decarbonisation plans made in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. To implement the Paris Accord there will be agreements and targets at EU and national level, and ports and all the operators within those ports will be included in these targets.

At the same time, decarbonisation will also affect the business of ports. On average, some 40% of the commodities – what comes in and out – of a port is a source of energy, whether that is coal, oil, or something else. So, for those ports that are really energy ports, decarbonisation will have a large impact on their business and they will have to proactively seek alternatives. It might be that they can play an equally important role in renewables, and that is an important aspect of the port’s decarbonisation agenda: turning the challenge into an opportunity.

In terms of other air pollutants, there is now a global target set for 2020 of reducing sulphur content in marine fuel to 0.5%, and ESPO welcomes that. There has been an enormous positive impact since the introduction of sulphur emission limits in the Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs), and it would be very good to continue on that path for the whole of Europe and the world. On nitrogen oxide, there will also be NECAs, but these will only apply to new-built ships. It’s difficult to go further than that, but for those port cities that are very much affected, a look at additional ideas to complement the NECA measures may be required.

The last point on sustainability which is also high on the ESPO agenda is the review of the EU Directive on port reception facilities for ship-generated waste and cargo residues. This directive has now existed for 15 years, and in that time the waste gap – that is, the difference between what exists as waste from a ship and what is delivered into a port – has become a lot smaller (in some areas it is tiny) so the directive has worked. However, it needs to be modernised because there are new forms of waste.

ESPO is open to these discussions, but they need to retain the flexibility that is currently in place with regard to different fee systems. In addition, some ports have unreasonable amounts of waste being delivered, and in those cases something is needed on the ship side, a kind of monitoring or another way to avoid waste being kept and saved for a given port, which will then have to cope with large amounts of waste.

In terms of ESPO’s efforts to promote sustainability, this year we have been marking the 20-year anniversary of our network of ‘green ports’, that is, our EcoPorts. Sustainability has been at the top of our agenda since the beginning, and this was very much materialised in the EcoPorts network.

There are different stages for membership in EcoPorts. As a port, you can become part of the network by answering a series of environmental questions about your port, and that information is then fed into a database which enables us to build the benchmark of the sector. That data is vital to see how we green our ports. Once a member of the network, a port can compare its achievements in environmental areas with the average in a discreet way – you don’t have to share the information with anyone, so if you find you have a bad track record compared to the average, you can keep that to yourself, or share it with the board and discuss strategies to strengthen and step up your environmental efforts.

Another tool that we offer to our EcoPorts network is the Port Environmental Review System (PERS) certification, which is a specific environmental certification valid for two years. We now have around 30 ports that have achieved the certification, and have seen it become well established in the industry; for example, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have both referred to the certification and the standards within when assessing port projects. The network as a whole has almost 100 ports, which in itself shows the environmental commitment that many ports in Europe have.

Isabelle Ryckbost

Secretary General

European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO)

This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 22, which will be published in July


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