ECONOMY

Greece faces EU Court over levies on ships

Brussels – Greece is once again facing the European Court for violation of European Union fair competition rules. This time, the European Commission charges that Greece follows a discriminatory levy regime against ships doing international trips and for not allowing tugboats flying a foreign flag to operate in Greek ports. The first part of the Commission’s case concerns a special levy on vehicles boarding ships in Greece for a foreign destination. A similar levy is imposed on all passenger and cargo ships on international routes that anchor at the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. There are no similar charges for ships doing domestic routes. Passengers on domestic routes pay a smaller levy than passengers on international routes. There is also a special levy on foreign ships that call in Greek ports. This levy goes to the local authorities. Concerning the tugboats, the situation is simpler. Greek law makes mandatory the use of Greek-registered tugboats within Greek waters. The use of foreign-registered tugboats is allowed only in exceptional circumstances, such as an emergency or the towing of a ship from Greek territorial waters to a foreign port. This is the sort of preferential treatment that explicitly violates the principle, enshrined in EU law, of free settlement and equal employment for all member-state citizens. In both these cases, as in all cases where Greece has been obliged to face the European Court, several rounds of negotiations have taken place during which the European Commission has tried to persuade the Greek State that it is doing something illegal. For several reasons, including, in many cases, the fear of appearing to bow to the EU and not protect local interests, Greece usually chooses not to strike a deal with the European Commission but go straight to the court, where it has very rarely won its case. (Another case that will surely reach the European Court is Greece’s illegal subsidy to cash-strapped national carrier Olympic Airways. The Commission wants the airline to return 194 million euros to the State. The government insists only 41 million euros should be returned.)