From: Patrick Quinn, Associated Press
Published October 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Greece Insists on Decision to Block E.U. Plans Penalizing Polluters

ATHENS, Greece — Greece said on Wednesday it would never retreat from its decision to block European Union proposals setting minimum punishments for shipping companies and captains responsible for oil slicks.


At a meeting of European justice ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta said the proposed new rules would penalize their merchant fleets by going further than international agreements applicable to competitors from outside the E.U.


"The merchant marine is a national treasure that has been defended by our constitution for 60 years. This would have placed Greek seamen at great danger, and no Greek government would ever allow it," said government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros.


Greece has the largest merchant shipping fleet in the E.U., with Greek-registered ships making up about 50 percent of its tonnage. The rest of the Greek-owned fleet — which does not fly the Greek flag — is far larger and controls more than 18 percent of the worldwide capacity in tonnage.


The issue could be discussed at next week's E.U. summit in Brussels.


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"If French wine was under threat, does anyone doubt they would fight until the bitter end?" Antonaros questioned, setting the tone for any future discussion.


The proposed E.U. rules set a series of minimum punishments of up to 10 years imprisonment and fines of euro1.5 million (US$1.9 million) for major pollution at sea resulting from deliberate acts or gross negligence.


The E.U. has been pushing for stronger rules to prevent more accidents like 2002 Prestige oil tanker disaster in northwestern Spain. The Prestige was operated by a company in Athens but flew a Bahamian flag, and its operator was registered in Liberia. Its captain was Greek.


The three countries also want to revise the package to impose a ceiling on the liability that shipping companies can face if there is a pollution disaster. Without that, they say, it will become impossible for shippers to get insurance cover.


Greece's opposition Socialist party criticized the decision to block the E.U. proposals, accusing the government of bowing to pressure from "ship-owning interests."


"It is a service that was offered to ship-owning interests that want to remain without control and to pollute the marine environment," said former Merchant Marine Minister Christos Papoutsis.


Greece should have negotiated a better proposal on pollution rather than just blocking it, he said.


Proposals setting the minimum levels of sanctions need unanimous approval from all 25 governments before they can become E.U. law.


Source: Associated Press


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