Saturday, April 09, 2005

Another federal power grab

A nice little spat is developing in Brussels, where the overarching ambitions of Jacques "Wheel" Barrot's Transport directorate have proved too much even for the generally acquiescent member states.

Centre-state is the commission proposal for a directive on port security, published in February of last year. This aims to require member state governments to survey their ports for security threats and set up systems for dealing with possible terrorist incursions.

That much the governments have agreed to do, but the commission is not satisfied with this. It wants to set up its own corps of inspectors, to visit each of the ports and to "verify implementation of the national plans adopted pursuant to the directive."

The commission proposes that ports will be inspected every three years, with approximately 84 inspection visits carried out each year, at an estimated cost of €150 000 per port.

Now the member states, through the Transport Council, are threatening to block the whole directive, arguing that inspectors from Brussels are not necessary because they are capable of checking security arrangements with their own -personnel.

With the proposal about to go to the EU parliament for its first reading, the issue has also pitted the council of ministers against the parliament, with MEPs siding with the commission – now there's a surprise.

Member states want to restrict Brussels to a "screening" role, entailing the checking of documents with no physical presence in ports. The Luxembourg presidency, however, has drafted a compromise proposal requiring governments to set up systems ensuring adequate and regular supervision of the port security plans and their implementation, submitting to the commission status reports every three years.

The commission is already recruiting port inspectors to ensure compliance with a separate security Bill, the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which was adopted into EU law last year.

That team is expected to begin deployment this year, a development which is worrying the European Sea Ports Organisation.. "We have mixed feelings on this one," says its spokesman, Patrick Verhoeven. "We do not mind commission inspectors if they help to ensure a level playing field, but we are concerned about having a multitude of inspectors which could lead to a situation where you have an inspector from the commission one day, from the member state the next day and from the US the following day."

For the commission, though, this represents a golden opportunity to extend its remit beyond merely legislating and into law enforcement – as we have seen with the fisheries agency - thus acquiring more and more of the functions of a federal government.

Whether the member states buy this, or back off, will be interesting to see, but at least there are no surprises with the EU parliament, which is consistently a cheer-leader for the commission in extending its federal powers.

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