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Saturday, December 16, 2017

POINTS OF VIEW

Owners, builders, suppliers, brokers, agents, lawyers, financiers were out in numbers last week enjoying the greater-than-ever hospitality that Posidonia provided. Despite the construction, traffic confusion and dust of pre-Olympic Athens, all had much to be happy about with freight markets holding up well and with associated businesses sharing in the general euphoria. Even the charterers were present in good numbers and apparently not too gloomy as they tried to cement old and new relationships and lock-in preferential positions.

However, the question remained: Is this bullishness justified? Is it sustainable? Shipping has much to be proud of as it goes about its business in its low profile way, delivering goods and services that facilitate international trade and drive the economic well-being of the developed and developing world. It is the quiet reliability of these services that results in shipping’s low awareness in the minds of the public and the politicians. Much of the media attention on the shipping industry, both at Posidonia and concurrently in the non-shipping mainstream press, focused on compliance with the ISPS Code - not so much on the concerns for terrorism per se but on the potential for disruption to trade caused by non-compliance.

The shipping industry’s significantly improved safety and overall performance record means that the increasingly rare accident or pollution incident hits the headlines in a dramatic manner, tending to overshadow its improved performance. In those circumstances the shipping industry may well highlight all the improvements that have been made, broadcast its safety record and talk of its massive investment in new ships, training etc. However without political support, all that hard-fought-for progress will count for nought, and the end result is likely to be another layer of regulation to ‘keep the rogue under control’.

The first day of Posidonia saw Pandy Embiricos mount a scathing attack on the European Commission and its response to the Erika and Prestige accidents – with comments on parochial political expediency, the undermining of the IMO, the over-enthusiastic rush to criminalise and lay blame, and more. One of his most compelling arguments was the absence of political support for the shipping industry and for the overwhelming majority of responsible owners committed to the highest standards - and with a track record to prove it. The shipping industry had significant things to answer for in both accidents, but did these incidents justify the wholesale lynching of an industry the vast majority of whose members have been performing well?

As host nation, the presence of the Greek minister happened without question, since traditionally Greece has been a loyal supporter of its shipping industry and maritime communities. The Norwegian minister was also present - another nation that recognises the role of shipping and its importance in society. This was further demonstrated by reference to the government’s new package of support measures for the Norwegian industry and the attendance of the Norwegian royal family. Hong Kong, with its drive to become a regional international maritime centre, sent its minister, while the Singaporean, Japanese and Korean industries were well represented with obvious support from their respective governments. A few other European countries had government representatives providing support for their equipment and other industries, but there were some obvious absences.

The responsible shipowner is concerned always to ensure a sustainable business. Safe and responsible operations are under his control and he seeks practical partnerships with others in the quality and supply chains. However, he has less influence over supply-demand fundamentals and freight levels. What he does need is the support of politicians; sound (international) legislation; the respect of society at large. Much is spoken about the “image” of shipping, awareness campaigns and better incident response and management. But the shipping industry also needs governments and politicians to speak up and to visibly demonstrate their recognition and support for the industry upon which their citizens, indeed their civilisations, are so dependent. A few governments do this, and in some countries there are strong pockets of support. But overall there is not enough recognition and support. The shipping industry is entitled to ask for this and may reasonably complain when it is not forthcoming.