The “Prestige” catastrophe is unveiling the most complex situation of the European merchant marine industry. The issue is primarily an issue of responsibility, which while on the part of the European Commission is taken seriously, when it comes to the level of Member States, things take a different approach.
On the “Prestige” catastrophe, first thing to be said is the responsibility of the Spanish authorities, who refused to take the damaged ship in the nearby La Coruna harbour, and allowed it to leak and be taken by the waves for six days. At this point we should say that to bring “Prestige” into La Coruna would have been highly risky but leaving it outside guaranteed its sinking. If “Prestige” had been docked a possibility exists that there would have been no disaster, only minor problems. Of course, if something would have gone wrong while the ship was docked at La Coruna, the disaster would be local and major. Second issue concerns inspections carried by Member States. Indeed, so far the Commission does not have gendarme role in policing its decision. This is a responsibility of Member States that do have the responsibility of guarding and implementing decisions, Directives, Regulations and the Treaty.
Number one case is France, which instead of inspecting the minimum number of 25 percent of the ships, it is hardly inspecting something like 10 percent. Certainly, if France, instead of always talking and asking and demanding and going on with empty rhetoric, had implemented the 25 percent inspection rule, “Prestige” would probably also have been inspected.
After the French come the Italians. In the case of Italy the problem seems to be of a linguistic nature. Indeed, in English language, “inspection” of a ship means an in-depth control of all parts of the vessel, something that takes at least five hours of solid work. The word inspection, in Italian translates into “Ispezione.” The difference between Inspection and Ispezione is that the cases, “Ispezione” usually takes only five minutes. Taking into account that in Italy much more than 25 percent of crossing ships are “ispezionati,” one can easily draw conclusions.
After Italians comes the Greek paradox. Greece owns the biggest commercial fleet in the world but under various flags of convenience. The reason is that the Greek government is trying to ensure, through tough legislation, jobs not only to sailors but to all kinds of jobless, thereby forcing ships under the Greek flag to hire extra staff that they do not really need (i.e. waiters etc.). Adding on top high taxation on tonnage, the Greek flag becomes very “inconvenient” and Greeks register under Liberia or Panama. I will not be surprised if some guys in Piraeus start registering on the …moon after a while. In this way not only can real safety rules not be seriously applied in many cases but the real owners also cannot be identified. This led to the absurd situation that no person can be found legally responsible for “Prestige” (it seems that it belongs to a company of convenience owned by a Greek who passed away sometime ago and now nobody knows who the owners are). Nevertheless, since publicity of the disaster was great and Spain had to get somebody to be responsible, the captain of “Prestige” has been arrested, although he had no responsibility at all. (730)