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), which identified a wide range of challenges in global competition, human resources, waste and emissions, short sea shipping, research and innovation.

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. 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 (Commission communication C(2004)0043).

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, accompanied by a proposal for a directive on market access to port services (‘first port services package’) (COM(2001)0035). However, the proposal was rejected by Parliament on 20 November 2003. A revised Commission proposal put forward on 13 October 2004 (COM(2004)0654) was also rejected. 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). This new EU strategy was part of the revised TEN-T guidelines (see fact sheet 3.5.1) and covered 319 major seaports.

On 15 February 2017, Regulation (EU) 2017/352 of the European Parliament and of the Council was adopted. 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 and the circumstances in which the number of operators can be limited. It introduces common rules on the transparency of public funding and on 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.

D. Working conditions

Several directives are relevant to working conditions. Directive 1999/63/EC of 21 June 1999 concerns the working time of seafarers on board ships carrying EU Member State flags, while Directive 1999/95/EC of 13 December 1999 applies 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. It further clarified which certificates need to be mutually recognised 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). On 1 June 2023, the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive amending Directive 2009/16/EC on port State control, which is part of a package to modernise EU rules on maritime safety and aims to update EU legislation and align it with international rules and procedures set by the IMO, the International Labour Organization or the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control. It also updates the way ships are targeted for inspection and will attach more importance to the environmental performance and deficiencies of ships when determining their risk profile. The scope of the directive is also amended so that fishing vessels of more than 24 metres in length can be inspected under port State control by those Member States that wish to carry out these inspections. Parliament and the Council reached a provisional agreement on 27 February 2024, which was confirmed by the Committee on Transport and Tourism on 20 March 2024 and subsequently by plenary on 10 April 2024. The final adoption will take place following legal-linguistic revision under the corrigendum procedure in the new parliamentary term.

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 the European Community Shipowners’ Associations and the European Transport Workers’ Federation on the 2006 MLC.

Finally, Directive (EU) 2015/1794 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, which aims to better protect 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 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). In January 2022, the Commission adopted an implementing regulation to make it a requirement that EU Member States monitor the amount of waste that is unintentionally picked up by fishing vessels and nets and taken to their ports and to report this data to the Commission. On 1 June 2023, the Commission adopted a proposal to amend Directive 2005/35/EC (COM(2023)0273) to include new types of illegal discharges from ships into the sea, reflecting recent modifications at international level (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, MARPOL 73/78). Parliament and the Council reached a provisional agreement on 15 February 2024, which was confirmed by the Committee on Transport and Tourism in March 2024 and subsequently by plenary on 10 April 2024. The final adoption will take place following legal-linguistic revision under the corrigendum procedure in the new parliamentary term.
  • Directive 2012/33/EU of 21 November 2012 (the ‘Sulphur Directive’, now Directive (EU) 2016/802) 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 (EU) 2016/802 of 11 May 2016 relating to a reduction in the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels.

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:

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:

To tackle the risk of serious economic downturn, the Commission published a temporary framework for State aid measures, which allows EU countries to provide assistance to companies, on top of the possibilities available under the current State aid rules.

G. Maritime safety package

On 1 June 2023, the Commission published a communication entitled ‘Maritime safety: at the heart of clean and modern shipping’. It was accompanied by proposals to revise five relevant pieces of legislation to modernise EU rules on maritime safety and prevent water pollution from ships:

  • Directive 2009/21/EC on compliance with flag State requirements. This proposal sets up a series of measures involving the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the national authorities that will enhance cooperation and standards in safety and environmental controls.
  • Directive 2009/16/EC on port State control. This proposal aims to update the current legislation to cover additional international rules and revise the way ships are targeted for inspection in order to reflect new requirements.
  • Directive 2009/18/EC on maritime transport accident investigation. This proposes to extend the scope to cover smaller fishing vessels and to foster the digitalisation of the investigation of maritime accidents, including the uptake of electronic certificates.
  • Directive 2005/35/EC on ship-source pollution and the introduction of penalties. The Commission proposal aims to prevent any type of illegal discharges into European seas by aligning EU rules with international regulations and extending the scope to cover a wider range of polluting substances, and by establishing a strengthened legal framework for penalties and their application. The proposal also seeks to optimise CleanSeaNet (the EMSA’s database), which will lead to timely enforcement and cooperation between Member States. The draft report from the Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism is pending a Committee decision.
  • Regulation (EC) No 1406/2002 establishing the European Maritime Safety Agency. This proposal updates the EMSA’s mandate to better reflect the growing role the Agency plays in many maritime transport areas, including safety, pollution prevention and environmental protection, climate action, security, surveillance and crisis management, including the new safety and sustainability tasks ensuing from this legislative package.

Interinstitutional negotiations on the four directives concluded in February 2024, and the agreed texts were confirmed by the Committee on Transport and Tourism in March 2024 and by plenary in April 2024. The final adoptions will take place following legal-linguistic revisions under the corrigendum procedure in the new parliamentary term. As regards the EMSA Regulation, Parliament concluded its first reading in March 2024 and will continue interinstitutional negotiations in the new parliamentary term.

Role of the European Parliament

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, 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.

In 2020, Parliament adopted a resolution on the European Green Deal. It called upon the Commission to move away from heavy fuel oil in shipping, to invest in research into new technologies for the decarbonisation of the shipping industry and to pave the way for developing zero-emission ships.

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.

Regarding the AFIR and FuelEU Maritime regulations, which were recently concluded, Parliament managed to considerably strengthen the requirements and increase the level of ambition, namely as regards the provision of infrastructure for alternative fuels, the greenhouse gas intensity limits of energy used on board, the use of renewable fuels of non-biological origin and the obligation to connect to on-shore power supply.

In March and April 2024, Parliament formally concluded interinstitutional negotiations on four proposals forming part of the maritime safety package, which is aimed at enhancing EU maritime safety standards and lowering the environmental impact of maritime transport activities.

For more information on this topic, please see the website of the Committee on Transport and Tourism.


Ariane Debyser / OLENA KUZHYM