Official Journal of the European Union

C 67/141

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission — Blue Belt, a Single Transport Area for shipping’

COM(2013) 510 final

2014/C 67/28

Rapporteur: Jan SIMONS

On 8 July 2013, the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the

Communication from the Commission — Blue Belt, a Single Transport Area for shipping

COM(2013) 510 final

The Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 30 September 2013.

At its 493rd plenary session, held on 16 and 17 October 2013 (meeting of 16 October), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 124 votes to 1 with 4 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The Committee welcomes the Commission's proposals set out in the communication, which aim to improve the operation of the maritime transport market and reduce the administrative burden for the maritime transport sector, thus making it more competitive. Indeed, it had hoped that these proposals would be published earlier.


In the Committee's view, the feasibility of the Commission's proposals is highly dependent on the view of customs authorities, one of the key stakeholders in this area. It urges the Commission to discuss the proposals in the Customs Committee as soon as possible.


One of the preconditions for the success of the Commission's proposals – both those on regular shipping services and those on the eManifest – is that Member States' IT systems must be completely interoperable for the eManifest. The Committee would point out that experience has shown that this is not a foregone conclusion, even when building on existing systems.


It should be explicitly stated in the eManifest that it expressly applies to all shipping services.


The Commission's envisaged deadline of June 2015 for implementing the eManifest is appropriate, albeit optimistic, as it coincides with the deadline, set by the Member States themselves, by which they must have established national single window services. Such services are crucial to the smooth operation of the eManifest, the technical preparations for which could not, therefore, be delayed for another year.


The Committee would also highlight the need to ensure that all stakeholders – and in particular customs authorities – are kept properly informed. There have been cases where the customs authorities were either unaware that operators were using paper manifests, as they are legally entitled to do, or refused to validate or accept them.


Alongside "hard" IT aspects, the Commission and Member States should also pay attention to "softer" elements such as initial and continuing training for customs officials, but this element is unfortunately absent from the Commission's proposals.


The Committee welcomes the fact that the Commission recognises the importance of good monitoring and information systems – which are of course vital to good decision-making – and notes that the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) still has an important role to play here.


The Committee endorses the Commission's view that eManifest requirements need to be taken into account when revising the Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Information Systems Directive.


Finally, the Committee feels that it is very important for regular consultations to be held, once the Commission's proposals have been adopted, with customs authorities, representatives of the shipping sector, freight forwarders and employees in order to consult them on and inform them about obstacles linked to the implementation of the proposals.

2.   Introduction


There is still no internal shipping market, despite the fact that Article 28 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) specifically refers to the free movement of EU goods within the EU.


This is particularly relevant on account of the extent to which the EU is dependent on maritime transport to trade within the EU market and with the rest of the world: 74 % of the goods imported or exported by the EU and 37 % of goods traded within the EU pass through seaports.


Maritime transport – and indeed inland waterway transport – can have lower operating costs and less negative environmental impact per unit than other forms of transport. This mode of transport is still encumbered with unnecessary red tape, which prevents it from operating optimally.


For example, ships sailing from a port in one EU Member State to a port in another often leave the 12-mile territorial waters zone, and therefore need to complete customs formalities twice, unless they are covered by the regular shipping service scheme. All goods on board are regarded as non-Union goods and are subject to customs controls.


While these procedures are motivated by safety, security and financial considerations, they entail additional costs and lead to delays in delivering the goods.


One step towards solving this would be to distinguish between the goods on board which are Union goods, and which can be placed on the internal market with no further formalities, and non-Union goods, which are subject to the usual customs formalities.


In 2010 therefore, the Commission, with the Council's support, raised the idea of creating a "Blue Belt" to increase the competitiveness of the maritime transport sector by allowing vessels to operate freely within the EU internal market with a minimum of red tape, including simplification and harmonisation measures for maritime transport from third-country ports.


The Blue Belt concept took shape in part through the pilot project launched in 2011 by the Commission in close cooperation with EMSA, using EMSA's SafeSeaNet monitoring and information system.


Although the pilot project provided a great deal of useful data, customs authorities pointed out that this information still needed to be supplemented with information regarding the goods carried, in particular on their status (Union versus non-Union).


It is precisely this distinction that will enable procedures for EU goods to be relaxed.

3.   Content of the Communication


The Commission published the Communication on the 'Blue Belt, a Single Transport Area for shipping' on 8 July 2013.


The Blue Belt proposals are based on the pilot project run by EMSA in 2011, and aim to:

improve the competitiveness of maritime transport by reducing red tape;

stimulate employment in the maritime transport sector; and

reduce the environmental impact of maritime transport.


In this communication, the Commission aims to create a policy framework to achieve the aforementioned goals by presenting two necessary legal measures amending the Customs Code Implementing Provisions (CCIP), one already submitted to the competent committee in June 2013, and a second to be proposed by the Commission by the end of 2013.


The first measure involves further simplifying the procedure for operating regular shipping services for intra-EU maritime transport. It is a customs scheme for vessels that regularly serve the same EU ports, carrying mainly Union goods.


The simplification comprises reducing the period for consulting Member States from 45 days to 15. Companies will also be able to request advance authorisation for Member States where they do a lot of business, thus saving time should the opportunity arise to transport goods to the Member State in question.


The second measure, relaxing customs formalities for ships serving non-EU ports, will have a much greater impact. The Commission intends to introduce a system that could significantly improve customs procedures by making a distinction between Union goods on board a ship and non-Union goods on board that are indeed subject to normal customs clearance procedures.


The Commission proposes to introduce a harmonised electronic cargo manifest (the eManifest), enabling maritime transport companies to provide customs authorities with all the information regarding the status of the goods on board, both intra-EU and non-Union. The Commission expects the eManifest to be fully operational by June 2015.


The Commission's proposals as set out in the communication are directly related to the Ports Policy Review published on 23 May 2013, on which the Committee issued a favourable opinion on 11 July 2013.

4.   General remarks


The Committee is strongly in favour of removing barriers to the smooth operation of the internal market, not least with regard to maritime transport, which, as the Commission says in the communication, is vitally important to the EU. Indeed, it had hoped, as stated previously (1), that these proposals would be presented at an earlier stage.


In its enthusiasm for completing the internal market for maritime transport as soon as possible, the Commission claims that this has already been achieved in other modes of transport. Sad to say, this claim is rather too optimistic: the internal market has not yet been completed either for road freight transport (cabotage restrictions) or for rail transport (national passenger transport).


It is clear to the Committee that, in order for maritime transport to be an attractive alternative to other forms of transport, efforts need to be made to reduce customs formalities and red tape, without however jeopardising safety or security.


The Committee considers cheaper and more efficient maritime transport to be an important goal, and supports the Commission's proposals to reduce customs formalities and red tape.


It would point out, however, that it is vitally important for these proposals also to be supported by Member States' customs authorities – the most important stakeholders in this field. Similarly, a specific category of transport operators – namely businesses with authorised economic operator status (AEOs) – could act as pioneers to test the introduction of the system.


With regard to the procedure for regular shipping services in intra-EU transport, the Committee welcomes the reduction of the consultation period from 45 days to 15 and the new option of applying for authorisation in advance.


As the European Commission does not intend to discriminate against purely intra-EU maritime transport in comparison to transport calling in at non-EU ports, the eManifest will apply to all maritime transport.


Specifically, the option of using the eManifest should be available not only for transport between EU and non-EU ports, but also for regular shipping services (RSS) and non-RSS transport between EU ports, if they wish to use it on top of the existing specific scheme.


Nonetheless, the Committee thinks it would be sensible to make explicit reference to the scope of the eManifest in future proposals on the subject.


With regard to the impact of the Commission's proposals, the Committee feels that particularly the eManifest – the harmonised electronic cargo manifest with information on the status of the goods on board – should be introduced as soon as possible following consultation with the competent Customs Committee.


It therefore also urges the Commission, once the decision has been taken to introduce the proposed measures, to prioritise harmonisation within the EU: Member States' IT systems must be fully interoperable in order to use the eManifest.


In view of this, the Committee feels that, while the Commission's stated deadline of June 2015 for introducing the eManifest may seem optimistic, it must be met.


After all, the Member States are already required, under Directive 2010/65/EC, to set up national single windows by June 2015; these are a key step towards implementing an eManifest. The Committee therefore urges all Member States, and certainly those with seaports, to meet this deadline on which they themselves agreed, otherwise the system will be doomed to failure right from the start.


Moreover, technical preparations for the introduction of an eManifest should be started no more than six months from now.


The Committee would stress that the information stored in the eManifest should be accessible to all interested parties, i.e. to governments, shippers and freight forwarders.


It would, however, point out that, based on an IMO (International Maritime Organization) recommendation, a paper manifest does exist (albeit not harmonised, and not in all Member States), but that in practice a number of customs authorities are not aware of its existence and/or are not willing to validate or accept it. It therefore stresses the importance of disseminating information properly to all customs authorities.


The Committee notes that it is vital, when extending the simplified procedures to cover transport to non-EU ports, to ensure that quick and reliable monitoring and reporting systems are in place.


In this connection, the maritime transport sector is fortunate to have EMSA, an agency that has already demonstrated its added value with regard to the vessel traffic element of the eManifest; it is now up to European and national customs services to implement the "status of goods" element in good time.

5.   Specific comments


According to the European Community Shipowners' Associations (ECSA), simplified administrative procedures would save EUR 25 per container, quite apart from the concomitant time savings that would have an even greater impact.


In any event, in the Committee's view this highlights the urgent need to develop balanced proposals so that the most important stakeholders in the issue – European and national customs authorities, shippers and freight forwarders – can also support them.


The Committee is adamant that the situation must, at any rate, not get worse, as could happen if, for example, VAT refunds on exports were subject to confirmation that the goods had indeed left EU territory.


Given that such exports are currently zero-rated, the introduction of such a condition could result in VAT being charged at a higher rate, which would then be very expensive and time-consuming to claim back. Fortunately, the Commission has advised us that, in the situation described above, VAT will remain at the current level of 0 %.


The Commission has stated that the intention is not to develop a completely new IT system – which would of course be very expensive – but to build on systems that already exist or are in development, such as the national single window. The Committee endorses the Commission's approach in this regard.


The Committee would also highlight the importance of having well-trained customs officials, and of providing good initial and continuing training to this end. It has already raised this issue in a previous opinion (2).


It agrees with the Commission that eManifest requirements need to be taken into account when revising the Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Information Systems Directive.


The Committee would point out that, if a positive decision is taken on the Commission's proposal, it is very important for key stakeholders such as customs authorities, the maritime transport sector, freight forwarders and employees to be consulted regularly and kept informed on progress with and obstacles to implementation.

Brussels, 16 October 2013.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  EESC opinion on Motorways of the sea in the logistics chain, OJ C 151, 16.6.2008, p. 20.

EESC opinion on An Integrated Maritime Policy for the European Union, OJ C 211, 19.8.2008, p. 31.

EESC opinion on European maritime transport space/reporting formalities for ships, OJ C 128, 18.5.2010, p. 131.

EESC opinion on Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area (White Paper), OJ C 24, 28.1.2012, p. 146.

EESC opinion on Blue Growth, OJ C 161, 6.6.2013, p. 87.

EESC opinion on Framework on future EU ports' policy, not yet published in OJ.

(2)  EESC opinion on State of the Customs Union, OJ C 271, 19.9.2013, p. 66.