ECONOMY

Stricter EU regulations have left Romanian ships high and dry

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Captain Dinu Varga says he would never sail on a Romanian cargo ship. «Why should I choose a floating coffin?» asked the Romanian veteran who has spent nearly 20 years at sea and believes that his country’s dwindling, aging fleet should be avoided. With Romanian-registered boats at the mercy of creditors, unpaid crews are jumping ship and Romania is the only East European state with vessels banned from Europe’s waters because of technical deficiencies. Romania has been told to improve the safety of its communist-era fleet if it wants to close a key transport negotiation chapter this year and join the European Union as early as 2007. «Further efforts will be needed to considerably improve the safety record of Romania’s flag,» reads the plan, which details the Balkan country’s steps for joining the EU. The Prestige disaster off the coast of Spain last year prompted the EU to ban single-hull tankers older than 23 years from calling at or leaving its ports and introduced special inspection schemes for all ships – even non-EU registered. The EU also set up a new mechanism to assess the technical state of national fleets; the number of ships detained for technical faults per 100 inspections around the world must not exceed seven, said Transport Minister Miron Mitrea. «Last year, Romania had a ratio of 50 percent. This year it fell to about 30 percent,» he told a government meeting. He said he wanted the figure to drop to below 10 percent by the end of the year. «Most of Romania’s ships are in too bad a shape,» Florin Mihalcioiu, representative of the London-based International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), told Reuters. Mihalcioiu said many Romanian cargo ships lie rusting off harbors across the world, with sailors stranded at distant ports without money, food or fuel for months because the firms which chartered their vessels have gone bankrupt. Before the 1989 fall of communism, Romania had the world’s third-largest merchant fleet in terms of capacity – more than 280 state-owned ships totalling 5 million tons. The number has dropped to 24 ships, all owned by a handful of private firms, due to bad management and erratic privatization efforts in the 1990s. Earlier this year a local court decided to sell as scrap 10 ships of the bankrupt fishing company Compania Romana de Pescuit Oceanic, for 37 billion lei ($1.13 million). The fleet now consists of five bulk cargoes, 10 general cargoes, one training cargo, six Ro-Ro vessels and two single-hull tankers, one 16 and the other 24 years old – one year over the EU limit. Blacklisted bulk carriers Alex C and Tina with a capacity of 25,000 and 18,000 tons respectively, were impounded in Istanbul and in Constanta this year after the newly created Naval Authority (ANR) withdrew their license and said they would be dismantled. Mitrea has pledged to scrap more. «It’s painful to have ships arrested from time to time creating a bad image for Romania. That’s hampering our negotiations with the EU,» he said. Mitrea said ANR had detained five Romanian ships so far. Another 11 have lost their license since the start of 2003. «This year we’ll complete ship inspections wherever the vessels might be and resolve the issue once and for all,» he added. In contrast, the local shipbuilding industry’s order books are improving. The government has pledged to support the yards – strong contributors to the country’s export-driven economic growth.