After a few testy exchanges the debate ended with the prospect of compromise on the horizon.
Commissioner Bulc began by setting out her priorities for the maritime sector for 2016 and 2017. These included working with the IMO on “de-carbonisation“ of the shipping industry where she hoped an agreement on CO2 data collection would shortly be reached with the IMO, which she said would be “an important step”.
Improved safety, especially for passengerships, and greater ”connectivity” with other important markets in the form of more bilateral trade agreements such as the one already agreed between the EU and China were also on the agenda, she said. More issues would likely come up since 2017 has been declared Maritime Year within the EC, she added.
But it was on the question of the application of the EU State Aid Guidelines for shipping, which it is the EC’s job to police, that the debate quickly focused.
Commissioner Bulc began by stating that the EC’s aim was to “ensure that the guidelines for state aid schemes are implemented correctly, in the spirit of supporting the maritime industry in its growth.” The EC was fully aware of the importance of Tonnage Tax measures in Greece and other EU countries, she said, but was looking at issues of “interpretation” to ensure “proper application’ of the guidelines to “genuine shipping businesses”.
Bulk concluded by saying she was “pretty sure that a favourable agreement for development of the maritime sector” would be agreed with Greece.
The Commissioner’s remarks seemed music to the ears of Veniamis, who said he believed dialogue was “the best tool for moving forward.” He reminded that the UGS and Greek government were united in their belief that shipping was a national resource that needed to be defended, and that the EU should focus on the international competitiveness of the European fleet and should for example “look at what Far East countries are doing.”
During ensuing Q&A with the audience, however, Bulk informed that the EC was “likely to take the next step” and turn the preliminary study on the application of maritime State Aid Guidelines by the EC’s DG Competition into a a “formal enquiry” where all stakeholders could have their say before any formal EC decision was taken.
Veniamis reacted robustly to the idea, stating unambiguously Greece’s preference that the matter did not proceed to main enquiry stage because it had a “strong legal base” for its case. Greece would never be a “whistle blower on other EU regimes that were on the fringe of legality in their application of the Guidelines, he said, but any formal investigation would “open a Pandora’s box,” he warned. “We want to close the case”, as other EU countries like Cyprus have done, he said.
Commissioner Bulk immediately got the message, interpreting Veniamis’ remarks as an “open invitation” to hold a “preface” of more talks between Greece and the EC before any formal investigation was launched. “We shall work in that spirit,” she promised.
Veniamis seemed satisfied: “If we both feel we serve European shipping that is the only solution.”