By Martin Banks - 30th April 2013
There is a gap between the law as it exists and what societies throughout Europe expect from it
French MEP Corinne Lepage has called for improved compensation for environmental damage caused by shipping accidents in EU waters.
Her demand comes after France's top court upheld fines imposed on the French oil giant Total for an oil disaster in 1999.
The tanker, Erika, sank off the coast of Brittany dumping 30,000 barrels of heavy fuel oil into the Atlantic sea.
In a ruling last September, Total was convicted of negligence in 2008 for overlooking maintenance problems of the ship it had chartered.
However, a hearing in parliament heard demands for EU maritime laws to be strengthened to help mitigate the impact of similar disasters.
The hearing was attended by representatives of the commission and MEPs as well as regional authorities and NGOs.
It examined the consequences that the ruling, handed down by the French Court of Justice, might have at European and international level, especially with regard to covering environmental damage to the marine environment.
MEPs, including Lepage, said that the Erika judgment highlights the "necessity" for adequate levels of compensation for environmental damage in EU waters.
Lepage, an ALDE member who chairs of parliament's seas and coastal areas intergroup, called "for EU law to be strengthened so that no actor involved is immune from liability".
"Making people fully aware of the potential costs of their action is the best form of prevention.
"It is also essential to clarify the relevant jurisdiction to rule on the damage and I uphold the idea that the state that is the injured party must have jurisdiction to prosecute those responsible."
Lepage also said she favours the creation of a special 'European fund' to compensate victims.
This, she said, would be in addition to other schemes such as the international oil pollution compensation funds.
Further comment came from French Socialist member Isabelle Thomas who agreed with the proposal, saying, "The time is now ripe to introduce ecological damage into EU law.
"At present, there is a gap between the law as it exists and what societies throughout Europe expect from it.
"Firstly, any such convictions are a legitimate clampdown on those who make regional and local authorities bear the burden caused by their reckless risk-taking. Secondly, the cost will deter carriers from carrying out all forms of dumping and will thus serve as a prevention tool."
Pierre Karleskind, speaking on behalf of the Rennes-based conference of peripheral maritime regions (CPMR), which represents some of Europe's outermost regions, said, "With the Erika ruling, regional and local authorities were recognised as victims of environmental damage, and as such were able to obtain compensation.
"We must now move forward by changing international and European rules along these lines. At the same time, we need to speed up and simplify procedures for compensating victims," said Karleskind.
He said the CPMR wants the international maritime organisation and the EU to act to "ensure the ongoing improvement of maritime safety".
Among regional representatives who spoke during the debate, Jonathan Wills, a local councillor on the Shetland Islands, highlighted the risk of offshore oil platforms.
Willis said, "My hopes are renewed with the new European directive which makes it possible to compensate for damage to the marine environment in the event of an accident caused by oil and gas platforms."