Irish block move to ratify shipowners 'cartel'

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IRELAND yesterday blocked attempts by Europe's shipowners to obtain a ruling on how the European Union's competition policy applies to the rates they charge on North Atlantic routes.

The Irish are concerned that any firm decision by the European Commission could in effect endorse the creation of cartels.

European shipowners have been acting together to control transatlantic routes. With the growth of container services, they are now able to transport goods from port to port and door to door. At their request, Belgium - current holder of the EU presidency - had asked the Commission to explore to what extent EU competition policy rules applied.

Dublin maintains that the shipping conferences - groups of shipowners - are in effect able to act as a cartel and may set their own prices. Any resolution must reflect this reality or it will be impossible to fight against 'price fixing'.

Ireland insists this already exists to some extent: Irish shippers must pay what is known as an Irish arbitrary, which one diplomat said yesterday 'appears to have very little to do with the cost of the actual shipping. Given that 10 per cent of the country's trade is with North America, this is potentially extremely damaging.'

Dublin has the support of various Scottish lobby groups. Whisky distillers, for example, complain that the additional shipping costs artificially inflate the cost of a bottle of scotch.

The shippers fear that the hidden agenda of the large shipowners is to extend their hold on prices from sea-transported goods to a door-to-door service on land. The owners argue this is not their intention, and that the sooner the Commission clarifies the rules, the better for all concerned.

One claimed: 'We are particularly hard-hit because the Scottish can, for example, trade into the UK by rail, but we must use sea links. All we want the Commission to do is admit that it has a responsibility to all concerned to consider the issue from the angle of users of the service as well as its providers.'