European integration is to take another lurch forward in the New Year when the fledgling European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) – the EU's very own coastguard service – will charter its own emergency oil spill vessels, covering most of Europe's sensitive coastline.
Initially, EMSA plans to hire private sector vessels on standby contracts, operaing in four areas: the Baltic Sea, the western entrance to the Channel, the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean. With only a modest budget as yet available, amounting to € 18m ($21.7m), it is looking to use bunker or supply vessels, which will be fitted with anti-pollution equipment.
The idea us that the ships will go about their normal business but will be available to EMSA, on request from a coastal state, for emergency oil spill operations in the event of a major oil spillage. Yet experts admit that the coverage provided by these vessels will be limited and EMSA has originally wanted a budget of €20m to give improved coastal coverage,.
Nevertheless, even this modest and largely ineffective provision represents a major victory for the stealthy progress of EU agencies, which include the Fisheries Control Agency, with which the Commission intends to take over control of all fisheries enforcement in the waters of EU member states.
The EMSA owes its existence to the Commission's successful exploitation of two major shipping disasters which affected member states, the first on 12 December 1999 when the tanker Erika, carrying approximately 30,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, broke in two in heavy seas off the coast of Brittany, spilling some 14,000 tons of oil were spilled and polluting more than 100 miles of Atlantic coastline.
Within days, Loyola de Palacio, then Vice-President for Transport and Energy, had rushed out pre-prepared proposals for an EU coastguard service. By June 2002, the commission had set up EMSA, originally with limited responsibilities, confined mainly to providing technical and scientific assistance to the commission and member states on matters relating to the proper implementation of EU law on maritime safety and pollution by ships.
Then, in November 2002, the second disaster occurred, when the tanker Prestige, carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil, broke up in heavy seas off the Atlantic coast of Galicia, destroying one of the most beautiful and richest areas for fishing in Europe.
Although the disaster was caused almost entirely by the incompetence of the Spanish authorities, MEPs joined in the calls for an EU coastguard service, to which a willing commission responded. In December 2003, EMSA thus given additional tasks by the European Council related to oil pollution response, ship security and training of seafarers, beginning operations in February of this year.
This is a classic example of the "beneficial crisis" at work, where the commission makes its plans and then waits until there is some sort of disaster or crisis, which it then exploits. And, while the current provision for oil-spillage vessels is largely token, this is yet another opportunity for the commission to blow its own trumpet, all in the interests of promoting even more integration.