European Council Upholds Oil Spill Prevention Action

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, December 13, 2002 (ENS) - The two day meeting of the European Council that concludes Denmark's Presidency wound up today with full support for efforts to prevent oil spills in European waters like that from the tanker "Prestige" in November.

The European Council brings together the Heads of State or Government of the 15 Member States of the European Union and the President of the European Commission. The decisions taken at the European Council meetings point the direction to definition of the general political guidelines of the European Union.

The European Council expressed its "regret and grave concerns" with regard to the serious accident of the oil tanker "Prestige" off the northwest coast of Spain. Caught in rough weather November 13, the tanker broke up and sank November 19, spilling at least 15,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil into the Atlantic off Spain's Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death.

"The ensuing damage to the marine and socio-economic environment and the threat to the livelihood of thousands of persons are intolerable," the European Council said in its statement today.

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The European Council met December 12 and 13 in Copenhagen. (Photo courtesy Danish Presidency)
The Council expressed "solidarity" with the countries, regions and people that have been affected by the spill, and its "support and recognition" of the efforts of the governments, institutions and civil society towards the recovery of the polluted areas.

The conclusions of the Transport Council on December 6 and the Environment Council on December 9 "should be implemented in all their aspects without delay," the larger Council affirmed today.

At the Transport Council, transport ministers agreed that European Union countries are to seek voluntary agreements with industry bodies to prevent any single-hulled tanker carrying heavy fuel, tar, bitumen and heavy crude oils from using EU ports.

The European Commission, which is the EU executive branch, has been invited to develop a model agreement, and to ensure that the 13 EU candidate countries also implement the measure.

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Thick heavy fuel oil coats the coast of the Spainish state of Galicia (Photo courtesy Xunta da Galicia)
Transport ministers asked the Commission to make proposals for a wider EU ban on all single-hulled oil tankers operating in EU waters, to be agreed by next July and introduced earlier than a 2015 deadline for phaseout of such vessels agreed internationally. EU Transport Commissioner Vice President Loyola de Palacio pledged to bring forward draft legislation with a target date of 2010.

Implementation of a package of oil spill protection measures agreed in December 2000 after the "Erika" spilled tons of oil off the French coast the previous Christmas has been slow, all concerned agree.

In particular a target of inspecting 25 percent of vessels visiting EU ports had not been met, the transport ministers said. They asked the Commission to produce a proposal to strengthen port control procedures.

Transport ministers also supported the Commission's intention to issue proposals on sanctions to be imposed on negligent polluters, a proposal in the Erika package they previously rejected. They also invited member states to limit access of "vessels carrying dangerous and polluting goods within 200 miles of their coastline." Spain and France have already adopted this measure and have asked their fellow EU Member States to do the same.

At their meeting Monday, the Environment Council, which consists of the 15 EU environment ministers, welcomed actions to accelerate the phasing out of single-hulled tankers, to ban the use of single hull tankers for the transport of heavy grade oils, and to more quickly identify places of refuge for ships in distress.

They agreed to ask the Commission immediately to establish an expert team to help coordinating the assistance offered by the Member States to the affected countries - Spain, Portugal and France.

The expert team would examine the long term effects of the damage resulting from the oil slick as well as from the remaining oil in the wreck while taking into account the flow of marine currents and to assess what measures can be taken in order to avoid further environmental damage in the future due to the oil still remaining in the wreckm the environment ministers said.

The Environment Coucil urged EU Member States to have in place specialized towage and recovery vessels to respond directly to threats to the environment as a consequence of accidents with oil tankers.

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Oil from the tanker "Prestige" covers a Galician beach in northwest Spain. (Photo courtesy John Cunningham)
They proposed consideration of creating a common mechanism by which "the oil companies and shipping companies used by them, shipowners, charterers and insurance companies provide the means, not only to prevent, but also to efficiently combat possible ecological disasters such as those caused by 'Erika' and 'Prestige.'"

The environment ministers stressed the importance of integrating environmental considerations into the EU's policies and urged adherence to the precautionary principle.

They asked for consideration of using the newly established European Union Solidarity Fund for funding the cleanup of disaster stricken areas, including natural zones, for actions not covered by other funds. This fund is being used to repair some of the damage caused by floods this summer in Germany and Austria.

While oil spill disaster prevention engaged the attention of the European Council, most of its time was spent on confirming the enlargement of the EU by 10 new countries.

To overcome the legacy of conflict and division in Europe after the World Wars of the 20th century, the peoples of Europe formed what the Council called "a common determination to come together in a Union that has become the driving force for peace, democracy, stability and prosperity on our continent."

Today "an unprecedented and historic milestone" was reached, the Commission said in statement. Accession negotiations were concluded with Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia. The Union now looks forward to welcoming these States as members from May 1, 2004.

Bulgaria and Romania are also on the road to accession to the European Union.

Accession negotiations with Turkey will begin in December of 2004 if at that point Turkey has fulfilled the so-called Copenhagen criteria on political reform.

Greece, historically an enemy of Turkey, takes over the Presidency of the European Union from January 1, 2003.

Still, the present European Union contains other former enemies such as Germany and France, Britain in World Wars I and II.

The Bush administration approves the enlargement of the European Union. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said today, "This is a visionary decision by the European leaders to build a truly inclusive European Union. Turkey's continued evolution toward Europe demonstrates for the continent and for the world that Islam and democracy are fully compatible. The president strongly supports Turkey's continuing commitment to political and economic reform."