Shipping in the sights of Brussels

Business File, April-May 2017, No. 110

Panos Laskaridis, President elect of ECSA, guides us through the maze of the European debate. The Commission has opened a preliminary enquiry on Greece about the taxation regime of shipping. At present, the expecta- tion is that a satisfactory consensus solution may be reached.
A recurrent issue in the Greek public debate is the taxation regime of shipping, which has recently taken a European turn by the Commission opening a preliminary enquiry for Greece – as it had for Malta (still pending), for Cyprus (has reached a consensus solution) and for France. The Greek case is slowly edging forward, with a possible consent solution some time ahead. There are three possible endings to the procedure underway: either the explanations provided by Greece to the Commission will not be deemed sufficient and a Commission decision will be fought by Greece to the European Court of Justice, or a consensus solution will be reached, or else a formal enquiry may be opened (meaning a more contentious loop). At present, the expectation is that a satisfactory consensus solution will be reached.
Still, matters of competition and state aids are not the only –not even the most important– issues of European interest to day. We asked Panos Laskaridis, CEO of Laskaridis Shipping Co, a member of the Board of the Union of Greek Shipowners and President elect of ECSA (The Europe- an Community Shipowners’ Associations) to guide us through the thicket of the European debate over shipping.
The different types of shipping
Does Europe understand shipping? Would you say that Europe is inter- ested in understanding shipping? By “Europe” I mean Brussels…
It does, but we have to keep in mind the different types of shipping. Europe is more amenable to understand ship- ping of the sort not akin to our own kind of ocean-going shipping, tramp shipping. It is more close to inland shipping, passenger shipping, coastal, traffic ports and suchlike. It does not de- vote so much attention to shipping as we understand it. This is a disadvantage for the Greek way of thinking about shipping – but that’s life!
And how do you react on this set of mind?
Well, we try to bring more to the Europe- an focus the kind of shipping we are deal- ing with – which, after all, is far more important for world trade and prosperity as a whole. The vast majority of trade between nations is conducted by tramp shipping, so this type of shipping and its concerns must be brought to the forefront.
Is there coherence in Brussels?
And when we talk of Europe, who are those you configurate with? The Commission, the Parliament? In the Commission is it Transport or Com- petition/ Internal Market? Is there coherence in Brussels?
There is no coherence – for several reasons. First of all, to us the Commission is all important: it deals with us with different departments, having to do with different issues that impact shipping. Climate change, the environment is one: here there are certain aspects – green- house gases/CO2, then SO2, NOx. Then there is Transport, which deals with the main issues of shipping. While the Com- petition commissioner deals with tax aspects, state aide Guidelines etc. Then, there is the Parliament which deals especially with environmental is- sues – very actively since there are very strong pressures from the electorate. A myriad of environmental groups appear- ing to be acting for the environmental, in a civil-society perspective. Many of them of an obscure character and nature – but extremely vocal and thus powerful.
And the Council?
As an ultimate instance you have of course the Council of Ministers. But there, matters will reach only when they are al- most done or cooked at the Commission level or dealt with in Parliament. Plus, there is what we call the Trilogue – mean- ing a discussion between Parliament, the Commission and Ministers. There ultimate decisions are taken, when there are diverging positions.
To your feeling, are things closer to being dealt with in a consensual or in a conflictual way, in Europe?
It very much depends on the issue. On various issues, the interests coming together are not the same. You don’t always have the same groups of nations aligning themselves. Alliances get formed according to the issues arising. There is no across-the-board national or political alliance; broadly speaking, we come to consensus only when the solution reached is not really clear. Therefore, obviously, further to the activities by ECSA in Brussels, every ship- ping association tries to influence its own Government at home, to get heard at Council of Ministers level – but also MEPs in Parliament, as well as more convincing access to the Commissioners.
What about lobbying?
Well, there is quite a lot of lobbying activity in Brussels. Greece does not do that – wrongly in my opinion. So, there is ECSA activity, there is individual Associations lobbying, plus cooperation with Governments to get a voice; same thing about international fora and Conferences, such as the recent Paris Conference about the climate.
Last point: does the Brussels system accept the global instances and rules, such as IMO? Cohabitation, or animosity?
They do accept it. But what is the point of contention? Europe is in some aspects more aggressive and forward-looking than other big nations of the world. So it feels it can (and should) act swifter; in debates such as CO2, they want to go faster and more aggressively than the rest of the world. If you ask me whether this is only just out of environmental, benign sensitivities, my answer is clearly “No”. It’s a mixture of politics, interest for the environment, national interest but also following the voices of the electoral and vocal environmentalist. But separation between international and European initiatives will always create controversy and friction.