Maritime transport: strategic approach

EU regulations on maritime transport focus on the application of the principle of free movement of services and the correct application of competition rules, while ensuring a high level of safety, good working conditions and environmental standards.

Legal basis and objectives

Article 100(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is the legal basis, supplemented by the Treaty’s general provisions on competition and the freedom to provide services (see fact sheet 2.1.4). The aim is to apply the principle of freedom to provide services to the EU’s maritime transport industry and to ensure that competition rules are complied with. Sea transport is also a central part of the integrated maritime policy (IMP) (see fact sheet 3.3.8). The EU’s maritime safety policy is dealt with in a separate chapter (see fact sheet 3.4.11).


A. General approach

Maritime transport was the subject of a 1985 Commission memorandum entitled ‘Progress towards a common transport policy – maritime transport’ and a 1996 communication entitled ‘Towards a new maritime strategy’. The Commission Green Paper on sea ports and maritime infrastructures (COM(1997)0678) offered a review of the industry and took a close look at the problems of port charges and market organisation, including integrating ports into the trans-European transport networks (TEN-T).

In January 2009, the Commission published a communication on strategic goals and recommendations for the EU’s maritime transport policy until 2018 (COM(2009)0008). A wide range of impending challenges was identified, including:

  • EU maritime shipping in globalised markets and in the face of increased competition;
  • Human resources, seamanship and maritime know-how: possible strategic measures that could be taken included, in particular, increasing the attractiveness of maritime professions, improving the training of seafarers, promoting lifelong professional prospects in maritime sectors and improving the image of shipping;
  • The long-term objective of achieving ‘zero-waste, zero-emission’ maritime transport, improving maritime safety and preventing terrorism and piracy;
  • Exploitation of the full potential of short sea shipping, for example by creating a borderless European maritime transport area and fully implementing projects to establish motorways of the sea or to link ports to their hinterland;
  • Maritime research and innovation: promoting innovation and technological R&D in order to improve the energy efficiency of ships, reduce their environmental impact and provide better quality of life at sea.

B. Market access

The first maritime legislative package dates back to 22 December 1986 and comprised the following regulations: Regulation (EEC) No 4055/86, which was intended to abolish restrictions on EU ship owners, Regulation (EEC) No 4057/86, which dealt with unfair pricing practices in maritime transport, and Regulation (EEC) No 4056/86, which allowed the Community to counter the ‘protectionist’ measures of third countries.

In 1992, the Council adopted a second maritime package of measures to phase in the liberalisation of national cabotage (access for carriers not resident in a given Member State to the maritime transport market between ports in that Member State) and in particular Regulation (EEC) No 3577/92 of 7 December 1992.

C. Competition rules

Regulation (EEC) No 4056/86 was repealed by Regulation (EC) No 1419/2006, through which the scope was extended to include cabotage and international tramp vessel services.

On 1 July 2008, the Commission adopted a set of guidelines on the application of Article 81 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (subsequently replaced by Article 101 TFEU) to maritime transport services. In September 2013, it decided not to extend the guidelines on maritime transport agreements, having found that their objective of facilitating the regime change by applying competition rules to the maritime sector had been achieved. On the issue of State aid, in 1997 the Commission had already adopted a legal framework authorising Member States to implement State aid schemes for the maritime sector. In 2004, the Commission confirmed this framework in the form of revised guidelines on State aid to maritime transport (Commission communication C(2004)0043). These clarified what aid – particularly for the purpose of promoting the entry of vessels in the registers of the Member States or a return to registration under their flags – is compatible with the Treaty establishing the European Community.

The opening up of port services to competition, however, is yet to be achieved. In February 2001, the Commission presented a communication on reinforcing quality services in sea ports (COM(2001)0035), accompanied by a proposal for a directive on market access to port services (‘first port services package’). After nearly three years, an agreement was reached between Parliament and the Council through a conciliation procedure, but Parliament rejected the agreement on 20 November 2003. The Commission then tried to address the subject again, putting forward a new proposal on 13 October 2004 (COM(2004)0654), which Parliament also rejected, this time at first reading on 18 January 2006. On 23 May 2013, the Commission presented a new package of measures to liberalise port services: a communication entitled ‘Ports: an engine for growth’ (COM(2013)0295) and a proposal for a regulation establishing a framework on market access to port services and financial transparency of ports (COM(2013)0296). On 15 February 2017, Regulation (EU) 2017/352 of the European Parliament and of the Council was adopted. This new EU strategy is part of the revised TEN-T guidelines (see fact sheet 3.5.1) and covers 319 major seaports. The aim is to level the playing field in the sector, protect port operators against uncertainties and create a climate that is more conducive to efficient public and private investment. The regulation defines the conditions under which the freedom to provide port services applies, for instance the type of minimum requirements that can be imposed for safety or environmental purposes, the circumstances in which the number of operators can be limited and the procedure for selecting operators in such cases. It introduces common rules on the transparency of public funding and of charging for the use of port infrastructure and port services, notably by making sure that users of the port are consulted. It introduces in each Member State a new mechanism to handle complaints and disputes between port stakeholders. Finally, it requires all port service providers to provide employees with adequate training.

The social provisions governing the port labour regime are discussed by the Social Dialogue Committee for Ports, which was set up in 2013 and brings together port authorities, terminal operators, dockers and other port workers.

D. Working conditions

Directive 1999/63/EC of 21 June 1999 was based on an agreement between the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the Federation of Transport Workers’ Unions in the European Union. It concerned the working time of seafarers on board ships carrying EU Member State flags, while Directive 1999/95/EC of 13 December 1999 applied it to third-country ships calling at Community ports. On 23 February 2006, the International Labour Organization adopted the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), thus creating a single, self-contained instrument comprising all the current standards relating to maritime labour: seafarers’ right to a safe, secure job in accordance with current safety standards; appropriate employment and living conditions; health protection; medical care and social protection. Directive 2009/13/EC amending Directive 1999/63/EC implements the agreement on the MLC.

Directive 2012/35/EU of 21 November 2012 amending Directive 2008/106/EC on the minimum level of training of seafarers stipulates that the training and certification of seafarers is regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (the ‘STCW Convention’). It was adopted in 1978 and entered into force in 1984, but was significantly amended in 1995 and again in 2010. Directive (EU) 2019/1159 of 20 June 2019 amending Directive 2008/106/EC on the minimum level of training of seafarers and repealing Directive 2005/45/EC on the mutual recognition of seafarers’ certificates issued by the Member States, brought the EU rules into line with the updated STCW Convention and clarified which certificates need to be mutually recognised so as to allow seafarers certified by one EU country to work on board vessels flying another EU country’s flag. The directive entered into force on 2 August 2019 and Member States had to adapt their national rules accordingly by 2 August 2021.

Directive 2013/38/EU of 12 August 2013 amending Directive 2009/16/EC on port State control aligns the text more closely with the above-mentioned MLC of 2006. The amended directive also makes reference to: (i) the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships (the ‘AFS Convention’, 2001); and (ii) the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage (2001).

Directive 2013/54/EU of 20 November 2013 concerning certain flag State responsibilities for compliance with and enforcement of the Maritime Labour Convention implemented the agreement reached between ECSA and European Transport Workers’ Federation on the 2006 MLC.

Finally, Directive 2015/1794/EU of 6 October 2015 amended the text of five directives (2008/94/EC, 2009/38/EC, 2002/14/EC, 98/59/EC and 2001/23/EC) on works councils, collective redundancies, the transfer of undertakings, employer insolvency and informing and consulting workers, to ensure that seafarers would be covered by all of the directives in all Member States.

E. Environmental standards for sea transport

In recent years, numerous measures have been adopted on protecting the marine environment. They include in particular:

  • Directive 2000/59/EC of 27 November 2000 on port reception facilities for ship-generated waste and cargo residues, which made it compulsory to dispose of oil, oily mixtures, ship waste and cargo residues at EU ports, and provided the monitoring mechanism necessary to enforce this. These rules were updated by Directive (EU) 2019/883 of 17 April 2019 on port reception facilities for the delivery of waste from ships, published in the Official Journal on 7 June 2019 with a view to better protecting the marine environment by reducing discharges of waste into the sea;
  • Regulation (EC) No 782/2003 of 14 April 2003 on the prohibition of organotin compounds on ships. Prior to the entry into force of this regulation, such compounds were used primarily as anti-fouling agents to prevent the growth of organisms on ship hulls, but caused serious environmental damage. This regulation implements the AFS Convention adopted by the IMO on 5 October 2001;
  • Directive 2005/35/EC of 7 September 2005 on ship-source pollution and on the introduction of penalties for infringements. This contains precise definitions of offences and also provides for effective, dissuasive and proportionate penalties – criminal or administrative – for violations of the rules. It was amended by Directive 2009/123/EC of 21 October 2009, which ensures that persons responsible for discharges of polluting substances are subject to adequate penalties, including criminal penalties (even in less serious cases);
  • Directive 2012/33/EU of 21 November 2012 (the ‘Sulphur Directive’) provided that cargo vessels sailing in the maritime territories of Member States would no longer be permitted to use fuel containing more than 0.1% mass of sulphur as of 1 January 2015. These waters are classified as a sulphur emission control area in accordance with Annex VI to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention). See also Directive 2016/802/EU of 11 May 2016 relating to a reduction in the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels.

F. Response to the COVID-19 crisis

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, several measures were adopted to respond to the difficulties encountered by the maritime sector:

  • On 8 April 2020, the Commission’s Guidelines on the protection of health, repatriation and travel arrangements for seafarers, passengers and other persons on board ships, calling on Member States to create a network of ports for fast-track crew changes;
  • Regulation (EU) 2020/698 of 25 May 2020 laying down specific and temporary measures in view of the COVID‐19 outbreak concerning the renewal or extension of certain certificates, licences and authorisations and the postponement of certain periodic checks and periodic training in certain areas of transport legislation. Considering the sanitary situation, this regulation was further amended in February 2021 (Regulation (EU) 2021/267) in order to allow such documents to remain valid for a further 10 months if they expired between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021;
  • Regulation (EU) 2020/697 of 25 May 2020 amending Regulation (EU) 2017/352, so as to allow the managing body of a port or the competent authority to provide flexibility in respect of the levying of port infrastructure charges in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak;
  • To tackle the risk of serious economic downturn, the Commission published a temporary framework for State aid measures C/2020/1863 (updated several times to take account of the evolving situation), which allows EU countries to provide assistance to companies, on top of the possibilities available under the current State aid rules. Member States have subsequently proposed a number of economy-wide measures and some sector-specific measures.

G. European Green Deal and Fit for 55

On 14 July 2021, the Commission adopted a package of proposals (known as the Fit for 55 package) within the context of the European Green Deal aimed at making the EU’s climate, energy, land use, transport and taxation policies fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Some of the proposals fully or partly cover maritime transport, including:

  • A proposal to include shipping emissions for the first time in the EU Emissions Trading System (COM(2021)0551 final);
  • A proposal for a revised Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation, which notably requires that ships have access to clean electricity in major ports (COM/2021/559 final);
  • A proposal on the use of renewable and low-carbon fuels in maritime transport (FuelEU Maritime) and amending Directive 2009/16/EC (COM/2021/562 final).

Role of the European Parliament

In its resolution of 12 April 2005 on short sea shipping, Parliament called for short sea shipping to be promoted more strongly, for administrative procedures to be reduced, for high-quality corridors between Member States to be developed and for priority to be given to investment in infrastructure in order to improve access to ports.

In its resolution of 5 May 2010 on strategic goals and recommendations for the EU’s maritime transport policy until 2018, Parliament supported the Commission’s approach in principle. It also called for further action against abuses of flags of convenience; new rules on State aid and guidelines for ports; greater consideration of maritime routes within the TEN-Ts (particularly through the motorways of the sea); improvements in the sustainability of maritime transport by reducing emissions from ships; and the development of EU maritime transport policy for the common maritime area.

On 15 December 2011, Parliament adopted a resolution entitled ‘the Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area – Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system’ in response to the 2011 Commission white paper of the same title. With regard to maritime transport, Parliament called for:

  • A proposal to be put forward by 2013 on the ‘Blue Belt’ (see COM(2013)0510 of 8 July 2013);
  • The introduction of an EU policy for short and medium sea shipping;
  • The allocation of at least 15% of TEN-T funding to projects that improve sustainable and multimodal connections between seaports, inland ports and multimodal platforms.

On 2 July 2013, Parliament followed this up with a resolution entitled ‘Blue Growth: enhancing sustainable growth in the EU’s marine, maritime transport and tourism sectors’, presenting Parliament’s roadmap for further advancement and seeking to revitalise the IMP. Parliament recommended establishing maritime spatial planning systems, upgrading infrastructure and creating access to professional skills. Crucially, Parliament also reiterated the paramount importance of maritime skills and employment, research and innovation, and the EU share of shipping and shipbuilding.

On 28 April 2015, Parliament adopted a legislative resolution approving, without amendment, the Council position at first reading with a view to adopting Regulation (EU) 2015/757 of 29 April 2015 on the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon dioxide emissions from maritime transport, and amending Directive 2009/16/EC.

On 22 November 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on unleashing the potential of waterborne passenger transport. Its aim was to encourage the use of available excess capacity in terms of both infrastructure and vessels in the fields of coastal (short sea) shipping, inland and maritime ferries, urban and peripheral mobility, cruises and tourism.

On 27 April 2021, Parliament adopted a resolution on technical and operational measures for more efficient and cleaner maritime transport, in which it notably recalled that the maritime sector should contribute to the EU’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring the sector’s competitiveness. It also stressed the need to effectively address the fuel emissions of ships and gradually phase out the use of heavy fuel oil in shipping, and called on the Commission to develop projects aimed at decarbonising maritime transport and reducing polluting emissions.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak and its subsequent impacts on transport, Parliament adopted a resolution entitled ‘Transport and tourism in 2020 and beyond’ on 19 June 2020, calling for rapid, short- and long-term support for the transport and tourism sectors to ensure their survival and competitiveness.

Since March 2020, Parliament has also adopted several legislative resolutions via an urgent procedure, aimed at combating the immediate negative effects of the pandemic on the transport sector.


Ariane Debyser