Shippers urged the Commission to take action in disturbed maritime market

Brussels, Belgium-European Shippers’ Council voiced shippers’ position on unreliability and peaking prices in the maritime container transport at the meeting organised by the European Commission. The Maritime Forum gathered maritime stakeholders – shippers, freight forwarders, carriers, port operators, ship owners – and representatives of DG COMP and DG MOVE to discuss the latest developments in the container shipping sector and possible ways forward.

Shipping lines representatives described how they did their utmost to correct a disruption initially brought by the large volatility of demand in 2020. Not only did carriers reject any liability but they insisted that their huge second half of 2020 profits, as well as the forecast of a still higher profitability in 2021, were a deserved compensation for the very difficult previous five years: a claim that may be questioned as none of them but Hanjin failed and all heavily invested in big new vessels.

In reality, shippers, ports authorities, terminal operators, and freight forwarders have had their efficiency gains on the maritime part of the supply chains nullified by a poor quality of service and higher costs at the ship/land interface. The current situation makes it impossible to export goods because the prices are too high related to the profit margin.

For shippers, it was disappointing to have no feedback or proposal of steps from the side of the European Commission, taking into account the months that the EC had been monitoring the situation and the fact that the EC initiated the forum. The EU regulatory representatives neglected the pleas of most of the attending stakeholders who asked for more investigation, future monitoring, and immediate framing of the liners’ market. We risk to lose the momentum and to experience more losses. The EU seems to be falling behind, because the US, China, and Korea have stepped up in monitoring and opening investigations in the current market situation.

European shippers want to have high quality maritime services for the money they pay, the respect of contract terms, and reliable relationship with shipping lines. The market which is only regulated by the Consortium Block Exemption Regulation (CBER), in this crisis cannot be left on its own. The CBER seems to give shipping lines a free pass on EU competition law, without any monitoring by regulators. Sooner or later, regulators will have to step in.

For that reason, ESC wants the European Commission to issue a Guidance document for “ethical collaboration”. These guidelines would give parties more clarity on how to deal with each other in the coming weeks and months. For the longer term, additional measures could be considered, for example, in the field of the Consortia Block Exemption Regulation and/or in the field of large vessels.