Maritime transport: Traffic and safety rules

EU directives and regulations have, over the past few years, greatly improved safety standards in sea transport. The improvements were brought about in particular by the three legislative packages adopted in the wake of the Erika and Prestige disasters.

Legal basis and objectives

Title VI, in particular Articles 91(1)(c) and 100(2), of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is the legal basis. Safety at sea is a key element of maritime transport policy with a view to protecting passengers, crew members, the marine environment and coastal regions. Given the global nature of maritime transport, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) develops uniform international standards. The primary international agreements include the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). While prompt amendment of EU law to incorporate these international law-based agreements is a major objective of the EU’s maritime transport policy, additional measures are also adopted at EU level.


A. Training and qualifications

Directive 94/58/EC of 22 November 1994 on the minimum level of training of seafarers gave the 1978 STCW Convention the full force of EU law. The convention underwent significant revisions in 1995, and again in 2010, entailing corresponding revisions to the EU directive, the most recent version of which is Directive 2012/35/EU of 21 November 2012. It outlines the rules on training and competency standards for seafarer certification, as well as regulated specialist training. The directive also deals with Member States’ requirements for seafarer training, communication between crew members, and the verification of crew members’ certificates (port State control). It also includes stronger measures to combat fraudulent certification, higher standards for physical aptitude and updated safety training.

Directive (EU) 2017/2397 of 12 December 2017 on the recognition of professional qualifications in inland navigation and repealing Council Directives 91/672/EEC and 96/50/EC provides a gradual phasing-in with transitional measures to extend professional qualification requirements beyond the level of boat masters to cover all crew in inland navigation in the EU. The updated directive lays down the obligation for deck crew members and persons in charge of emergency procedures to hold certificates of qualification. Boat masters sailing in hazardous circumstances should be specifically authorised to do so and should be required to demonstrate additional competences. On 18 February 2021 the Commission published a proposal for a directive amending Directive (EU) 2017/2397 as regards the transitional measures for the recognition of third countries certificates (COM(2021)0071). Following adoption by Parliament and the Council, Directive (EU) 2021/1233 was published in the Official Journal of the EU on 30 July 2021.

As there are currently no EU crewing rules on inland waterway transport, the Commission plans to adopt a regulation in 2025. Crewing rules differ between Member States and often date back over 30 years. Many changes have affected the shipping industry in the intervening years, however, and this new regulation aims to implement crewing rules at EU level that are easy to enforce.

B. Marine equipment

Directive 96/98/EC of 20 December 1996 on marine equipment aimed to ensure the uniform application of the SOLAS Convention to equipment for commercial vessels, making the IMO resolutions deriving from it mandatory. Directive 2012/32/EU amended Directive 96/98/EC by replacing Annex A to adapt it to take account of the most recent amendments to international conventions and applicable testing standards. Directive 2014/90/EU of 23 July 2014 on marine equipment strengthened the implementation of the relevant rules and the monitoring of their observance.

C. Security on ships and in port facilities

The ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) Code was adopted at an IMO conference in 2002, together with amendments to other international agreements. The aim of the code is to ensure better protection of ships and port facilities. Regulation (EC) No 725/2004 of 31 March 2004 was intended to ensure that decisions adopted by the IMO were interpreted and implemented uniformly. The European Union Maritime Security Strategy was launched on 24 June 2014 with the adoption of a Council decision approving it as a political and strategic measure for effectively addressing maritime security challenges using all relevant international, EU and national instruments.

D. Passenger ship safety and ship inspection

The common rules and standards for ship inspection and survey organisations and for the relevant activities of maritime administrations (classification societies) were laid down in Directive 94/57/EC of 22 November 1994. Safety on ships providing scheduled services between two EU ports is regulated by Directive 2009/45/EC of 6 May 2009, which consolidated and recast the safety rules and standards for passenger ships established by Directive 98/18/EC. Directive 98/41/EC of 18 June 1998 on the registration of persons sailing on board passenger ships made it possible for passenger numbers to be monitored and for rescue operations to be mounted more efficiently in the event of an accident. The rules on minimum qualifications for seafarers were updated in 2019 on the basis of a Commission proposal. Following adoption by Parliament and the Council, Directive (EU) 2019/1159 was published in the Official Journal on 12 July 2019.

In 2016, the Commission put forward three legislative proposals, which were voted on in plenary on 4 October 2017 and published on 30 November 2017. The first of the resulting directives, Directive (EU) 2017/2108 of 15 November 2017 amending Directive 2009/45/EC on safety rules and standards for passenger ships, sought to clarify and simplify the safety rules and standards for passenger ships. The idea behind the directive was to make the rules easier to update, monitor and enforce. Amendments to the previous directive included removing inconsistent and incorrect references, providing new definitions of different types of ships, clarifying the definition of equivalent material, excluding ships under 24 metres and simplifying the definitions of sea areas. A database has also been established by the Commission to increase transparency and facilitate the notification of exemptions, equivalences and additional safety measures. The second, Directive (EU) 2017/2109 of 15 November 2017 amending Council Directive 98/41/EC on the registration of persons sailing on board passenger ships operating to or from ports of the Member States of the Community and Directive 2010/65/EU on reporting formalities for ships arriving in and/or departing from ports of the Member States, updated and clarified the existing requirements for the counting and registration of passengers and crew on board passenger ships. Amendments included updating the definition of ‘port areas’ in order to incorporate information on the nationality of the persons on board, and obliging companies to store lists of passengers and crew in a National Single Window. The third proposal led to the adoption of Directive (EU) 2017/2110 of 15 November 2017 on a system of inspections for the safe operation of roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) passenger ships and high-speed passenger craft in regular service, which amended Directive 2009/16/EC and repealed Council Directive 1999/35/EC. This updated and clarified the existing survey requirements for ro-ro ferries and high-speed craft and provided for a system of ship-based inspections prior to the commencement of a regular service, which can be combined with a flag state survey on a yearly basis.

Directive (EU) 2016/1629 of 14 September 2016 laying down technical requirements for inland waterway vessels, amending Directive 2009/100/EC and repealing Directive 2006/87/EC, sets out the rules for inland navigation.

On 30 September 2020, the Commission adopted a proposal for a Council decision on the position to be taken on behalf of the European Union in the European Committee[1] for drawing up Standards in the field of Inland Navigation and in the Central Commission for the Navigation on the Rhine on the adoption of standards concerning technical requirements for inland waterways vessels.

Directive 2003/25/EC lays out specific stability requirements for ro-ro passenger ships. The Commission adopted a revision to align the Directive with new international damage stability standards adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in 2020. These standards help ships to remain stable and afloat in the event of flooding following a collision or grounding. A provisional agreement was reached between Parliament and the Council following interinstitutional negotiations. Parliament adopted a decision at first reading in March 2023. It is currently awaiting the position of the Council.

E. Digital maritime systems and services

The use of digital information improves the efficiency, attractiveness and environmental sustainability of maritime transport and contributes to the integration of the sector into the digital multimodal logistic chain. Directive 2005/44/EC on harmonised river information services sets a framework for digital information services to aid traffic and transport management in the EU inland waterway transport industry. A revision of the Directive is being considered in order to address shortcomings in the current framework, focus on new developments in digitalisation and make technical standards more efficient.

On 20 October 2010, the European Parliament and the Council adopted Directive 2010/65/EU on reporting formalities for ships arriving in and/or departing from ports of the Member States. 

In 2018, the Commission published a proposal for a Regulation establishing a European Maritime Single Window (EMSW) environment and repealing Directive 2010/65/EU. The EMSW includes harmonised rules for providing information required for port calls. Following adoption by Parliament and the Council, Regulation (EU) 2019/1239 was published in the Official Journal on 25 July 2019. The Commission adopted Implementing Regulation (EU) 2023/204 in October 2022 to standardise and define the features of the EMSW to ensure a harmonised reporting environment for users in all Member States. Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2023/205 of 7 November 2022 amends the list of reporting obligations required by legislation regarding port calls and, moreover, establishes a data set for the EMSW. In the second quarter of 2023, the Commission plans to adopt another implementing regulation to lay out technical specifications for the harmonised reporting interface module of the maritime national single windows, which are the electronic platforms for reporting on ships’ port visits.

F. Developments since the Erika and Prestige disasters

Following the wreck of the oil tankers Erika and Prestige, in 1999 and 2002 respectively, EU safety standards for maritime transport were once again strengthened considerably.

1. Erika I package

Directive 2001/105/EC of 19 December 2001 strengthened and standardised the legal provisions laid down in Directive 94/57/EC on ship inspection and survey organisations (see previous section). In particular, it introduced a system of liability in the event of proven negligence. Directive 2001/106/EC of 19 December 2001 made port State control mandatory for potentially hazardous vessels and introduced a ‘blacklist’ of ships which can be refused access to EU ports.

Regulation (EC) No 417/2002 of 18 February 2002 set a fixed timetable for withdrawing single-hull oil tankers from service and replacing them with safer double-hull vessels. Following the Prestige oil tanker disaster, a more rigorous timetable was adopted in Regulation (EC) No 1726/2003 of 22 July 2003. Regulation (EU) No 530/2012 of 13 June 2012 on the accelerated phasing-in of double-hull or equivalent design requirements for single-hull oil tankers subsequently repealed Regulation (EC) No 417/2002 and countered certain potential exemptions under IMO rules. It specified that, for the transport of heavy grade oil, only double-hull oil tankers would be allowed to fly the flag of a Member State, and it banned all single-hull oil tankers, irrespective of the flag, from ports or offshore terminals or from anchoring in areas under the jurisdiction of Member States.

2. Erika II package

Directive 2002/59/EC of 27 June 2002 established a Community vessel traffic monitoring and information system (SafeSeaNet). Before a ship is allowed to enter a port in a Member State, its owners are responsible for providing certain information to the relevant port authorities, particularly in the case of dangerous or polluting cargoes. The directive made it mandatory for ships to be equipped with automatic identification systems (AIS) and voyage data recorders (VDRs) or ‘black boxes’. The authorities of the relevant Member States have the right to prohibit ships from leaving a port in unfavourable weather conditions. Regulation (EC) No 1406/2002 of 27 June 2002 established a European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). EMSA’s role is to provide Member States and the Commission with scientific and technical support, and to ensure that safety rules in maritime transport are enforced. Its remit has considerably expanded over time to incorporate pollution control (operational assistance at the request of Member States) and satellite-based monitoring systems. Regulation (EU) No 100/2013 of 15 January 2013 amended the EMSA Regulation, clarifying EMSA’s core and ancillary tasks, as well as detailing the role it should play in facilitating cooperation between Member States and the Commission, by:

  • Developing and operating the EU Long-Range Identification and Tracking of Ships (LRIT) European Data Centre and SafeSeaNet;
  • Providing relevant vessel positioning and Earth observation data to the competent national authorities and relevant EU bodies; and
  • Providing operational support to Member States concerning investigations related to serious casualties.

Since EMSA’s mandate was last reviewed in 2013, there have been significant social and political developments. Hence, the Commission is conducting another review of the EMSA Regulation 1with a view to updating it with a specific focus on aligning the agency’s activities with the Commission’s sustainable and smart mobility strategy of 2020.

3. The third maritime safety package and port State control

Following intense negotiations, Parliament and the Council reached agreement in December 2008 on a third legislative package comprising two regulations and six directives:

  • A recast of the Directive on port State control (Directive 2009/16/EC of 23 April 2009) to ensure more frequent and more effective inspections under new monitoring mechanisms linked to potential risk, thereby bringing the procedures, instruments and work done in accordance with the Paris Memorandum of Understanding within the field of application of EU law. A revision of the directive is planned to include more targeted inspections on operational problems;
  • Directive 2009/21/EC of 23 April 2009 on flag State requirements, which enabled compliance on the part of ships flying a Member State flag to be monitored more effectively. The Commission is planning a revision of the directive to strengthen and clarify how flag states must perform their duties, to update and harmonise the directive with international rules, and to digitalise the flag registers;
  • Directive 2009/17/EC of 23 April 2009 amending the Directive establishing a Community vessel traffic monitoring and information system (SafeSeaNet), aimed to improve the framework legal conditions concerning places of refuge for ships in distress and to further develop SafeSeaNet;
  • Regulation (EC) No 391/2009 and Directive 2009/15/EC of 23 April 2009 established common rules and standards for ship inspection and survey organisations, and were aimed at creating an independent quality-monitoring system to eliminate the remaining flaws in inspection and certification procedures for the world fleet. To supplement this regulation, the Commission plans to adopt a delegated regulation to establish criteria for determining when the action of a recognised organisation poses a risk to public safety or the environment. Another delegated act is planned to establish criteria for measuring the performance of survey organisations that assess all classed ships;
  • Directive 2009/18/EC of 23 April 2009 establishing the fundamental principles governing the investigation of accidents in maritime transport set out the standard principles for investigations at sea of marine casualties and incidents involving vessels flying the flag of an EU Member State and occurring in the territorial sea or internal waters of a Member State. The directive also established a system for pooling findings, known as the ‘permanent cooperation framework’, between EMSA, the Commission and the Member States. The Commission plans to revise the directive because an evaluation showed that Member States see installing a permanent accident investigation body as a burden;
  • Regulation (EC) No 392/2009 of 23 April 2009 on the liability of carriers of passengers by sea in the event of accidents (based on the 1974 Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea as amended by its protocol of 2002);
  • Directive 2009/20/EC of 23 April 2009 set out the requirements for port State control in respect of ship owners’ certificates of insurance against maritime claims (subject to limitation under the 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims as amended by the 1996 protocol thereto).

G. 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. In light of the health situation, this regulation was further amended in February 2021 (Regulation (EU) 2021/267) in order to allow documents expiring between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021 to remain valid for a further 10 months.
  • 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 (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.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament has been supportive of maritime safety initiatives and has worked towards bringing about progress in this area. The two Erika maritime safety packages received the support of Parliament, which contributed to their swift conclusion and secured improvements to the original proposals. Parliament also called for a European coastguard service, for piloting in environmentally sensitive and difficult areas, and for clear emergency decision-making and leadership in the Member States (in particular in relation to the mandatory allocation of a place of refuge or emergency port).

As part of the review of the Directive on the Community vessel traffic monitoring and information system (SafeSeaNet), Parliament ensured that Member States are required to designate an appropriate authority to take decisions on how shipwrecks can be prevented and which port should accommodate a ship in need of assistance.

A legal framework for emergency ports, which Parliament had already called for on several occasions, is an essential requirement for the improvement of maritime transport safety. Parliament has thus been the driving force behind the significant improvements made to maritime safety, from the first through to the third maritime safety package (particularly via the work of its temporary MARE Committee in 2004).

In its resolution on EMSA, Parliament called for the Agency’s activities to be expanded. It specifically recommended that its traffic monitoring systems could contribute to a barrier-free European maritime space, which would enable goods and passengers to be transported between Member States by sea with no more formalities than for road transport. By adopting, together with the Council, Regulation (EU) No 911/2014 of 23 July 2014 on multiannual funding for EMSA action in the field of response to marine pollution caused by ships and oil and gas installations, Parliament contributed to the allocation of EUR 160.5 million to EMSA for the period from 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2020.


[1]The European Committee was implemented to develop common guidelines for inland navigation, which were adopted by the Central Commission for the Navigation on the Rhine in 2015.

Davide Pernice / Ariane Debyser