The Community framework for cooperation in the field of accidental or deliberate Marine Pollution

Europe is the world's largest market in crude oil imports, representing about one third of the world total. Ninety percent of oil and refined products are transported to and from Europe by sea. Inevitably, some of this makes its way into the sea. Whether by accident or normal ship operation, the marine environment is degraded. Accidents resulting in massive spill, such as "Prestige" or "Erika", provide gripping illustrations of the problem of vessel pollution. Large oil spills at sea constitute a threat to the environment, placing enormous demands on the national authorities responsible for response and clean-up operations.

Besides accidental pollution, caused by ships in distress, there are three types of routine ship operations which pollute the sea: ballast water, tank washings and engine room effluent discharges. Due to these operations large amounts of oil are pumped deliberately from ships every day, along almost all of Europe's coastline. This is the greatest source of marine pollution by ships, and the one that poses an insidious long term threat to the marine and coastal environment.

The European Community has played a vital role in the field of response to marine pollution since the Council Resolution of 26 June 1978, which set up "an action programme of the European Communities on the control and reduction of pollution caused by hydrocarbons released at sea". This was later supplemented to deal also with other harmful substances.

Preparedness and response mechanisms in the field of marine pollution were reinforced by the Decision n° 2850 of 20/12/2000 of the European Parliament and the Council setting up a Community framework for cooperation in the field of accidental or deliberate marine pollution. This framework was established for the period 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2006, and its aim is to:

  • support and supplement Member States' efforts;
  • contribute to improving the capabilities of the Member States for response in case of incidents;
  • strengthen the conditions for and facilitate efficient mutual assistance and cooperation;
  • promote cooperation among Member States in order to provide for compensation for damage in accordance with the polluter-pays principle.

The European Commission - Environment Directorate-General/Civil Protection Unit - with the help of a Management Committee on Marine Pollution implemented the framework for cooperation via:

  • A Community Information System with the purpose of exchanging data on the preparedness for and response to marine pollution.
  • A three-year rolling plan which includeed actions such as training, exchange of experts, exercises, pilot projects, surveys of the environmental impact after an accident, etc.

Community Action in response to marine pollution emergencies was further reinforced after the Council Decision of 23 October 2001 established a Community Mechanism to facilitate reinforced cooperation in civil protection assistance interventions. The new instrument covers both civil protection and marine pollution. The  general purpose of the Mechanism is, on request, to provide support in the event of an emergency and to facilitate improved co-ordination of assistance intervention provided by the Member States and the Community. The Community Mechanism for civil protection allows to respond to any major disaster inside and outside the EU by coordinating requests and offers for assistance between 30 participating states: the EU 27 and the three European Economic Area (EEA) countries - Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

In December 2006 the European Commission issued a communication (2006/0863) presenting the state of Community action in terms of preparedness and response to marine pollution, and indicating how the Commission, despite the expiry of the Community framework at the end of 2006, intends to continue and promote its activities to the full in this field from 2007, in an appropriate framework.

At the same time, owing to the importance of this issue, there have been new developments at Community level in terms of preparedness and response to marine pollution. In the aftermath of the Erika disaster, the European Union decided to strengthen its role  in the field of maritime safety and pollution by ships with the Regulation (EC) N° 1406/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 June 2002 establishing the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). The goal of the Agency is to provide technical and scientific assistance to the European Commission and Member States on matters relating to the proper implementation of European Union legislation on maritime safety and pollution by ships. In addition to its initial safety and pollution related work, in March 2004, EMSA was also given additional tasks related to oil pollution response.

The Community is also actively participating in international cooperation activities.

The European Community plays a central role between Member States as a contracting party to all major regional conventions and agreements covering regional seas around Europe, such as the Helsinki Convention 1992 for the protection of the Baltic Sea, the Bonn Agreement 1983 for the protection of the North Sea, the Barcelona Convention 1976 for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea and the (yet to be ratified) Lisbon Agreement for the protection of the North-East Atlantic.