Representative of major British ports have called for government funding, both in Britain and the rest of Europe, to be distributed more equally between ports.
In a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ports and Maritime this week, the new British ports and maritime minister, Robert Goodwill, was quizzed by representatives of British ports.
David Whitehead, executive director of the British Ports Association, asked: “What is the government’s policy on state aid? Obviously you can’t have unfair state aid to one and the other port doesn’t get it.”
Goodwill replied: “If we are going to start engaging in what you described as ‘state aid’, I am sure the European Commission would be taking a very close look at what we are doing.”
The British government defines ‘state aid’ as any advantage granted by public authorities through state resources on a selective basis to any organisations that could potentially distort competition and trade in the European Union (EU).
The minister continued: “On taking over the job, I was told that the good thing is that ports are not always coming looking for money and I see very ambitious investment plans which are funded by the ports themselves.”
The chair of the UK major ports group Simon Bird said: “There are examples of grants in the UK ports which other ports would query in terms of whether they constitute ‘state aid’.
Peel Ports was recently given £35m (US$55m) from the British Government’s Regional Growth Fund, via the local council, to conduct dredging ahead of the opening of its new Liverpool2 terminal. Other ports, on the other hand, have had to fund dredging works privately.
Bird continued: “The state aid that exists on the European continent in places like Hamburg are really major issues for us. We want a level playing field between the UK and Europe.” Dredging works at Hamburg have been granted funding from the German government.
Goodwill replied: “The argument that just because another member state is doing something naughty, we should do something naughty too, is not a very good argument. The European Commission is there to clamp down on illegal state aid and sometimes that’s quite slow progress but certainly if we have good evidence that European Commission rules are being flouted then it is our duty to bring that to the attention of the Commission.”
This has been an issue for British ports for some time. In August 2013, the UK major ports group sent a letter to the Transport Ministry which said that the European Commission’s Port Services Regulation proposal “could be helpful in exposing the level of subsidy some EU competitor ports are receiving”.
Despite this, the overall tone of the letter was highly critical of the regulation, which is still being debated by the European Parliament.
On the regulation, Goodwill said: “The prospect of torpedoing the whole thing is not a realistic prospect. We need to concentrate on ensuring that what we have is workable and minimises its impact on the UK. We don’t have a problem which needs fixing but we need to bear in mind that other European countries do have some issues which they want to address in terms of competitiveness”.