Taking pride in shipping

With Greece the global leader in shipping, the election of a Greek as the head of the United Nations’ shipping branch, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), capped the progress this country has enjoyed in the sector. Efthymios Mitropoulos, the general secretary of the IMO, spoke to Kathimerini about the industry, its image, naval education and legislation, and how Greeks perceive shipping these days. People have a negative view of shipping. Why is that and how can it be corrected? Ships are the cheapest and safest, along with airplanes, means of transportation, with safety records improving year after year, not to mention shipping’s ability to transport incomparably bigger quantities of cargo. The average age of fleets is constantly decreasing, while the portion of sea pollution from shipping activity (ranging between 12 and 15 percent of all polluting factors) is also dropping. Yet people do have a generally negative view of us, quite unfairly. This is due to the wrong perception that the shipping industry is selfish and indifferent, caring very little about the environment. Unfortunately this is fed by some politicians who seek votes without looking into the peculiarities of the shipping industry and instead of supporting shipping when in office, turn against it every time an accident happens, considering shipping an easier target than agriculture, industry or other sea polluters. Another factor behind shipping’s negative image is the media, which are indifferent to the productive aspect of shipping but are always quick to dramatize every shipping accident, as this obviously increases their audience. In Greece, too, our global leadership is not promoted, though it should to make us all proud. Maybe Greek opinion makers (politicians and the media) should see how global shipping’s heads respect Greek shipping and learn the truth: that without maritime transport the world’s financial system would crumble. We Greeks have to embrace and support everything related to shipping. Of course, we need to take measures for the prevention of accidents. First we should find, marginalize and eliminate every substandard element that contributes to causing maritime accidents. Do national or regional regulations create a hostile environment for shipping? If so, how can this be dealt with? Every international transport vessel has to adhere fully to all regulations and requirements of the international agreements its country has signed. Unilateral or regional regulations, if imposed on other countries’ ships, create serious problems, such as hurting the global character of international maritime transport, creating discrimination against other regions and harming the supplying of other industries. They also undermine the IMO’s authority and create confusion in shipping about which safety and environment protection regulations apply where, to which ships and when. Other regions may also feel they must create their own unilateral measures if they disagree with the IMO and so on. Handling this problem may seem hard but is actually simple: Follow the theory that as maritime transport is international, shipping beyond national waters must have global regulations for the protection of human life and the sea environment. Only the IMO has the authority to introduce and adopt such regulations on a global scale and from this basic position no one should depart, regardless how strong they feel. Political purposes Often technical issues in shipping are handled by politicians and diplomats who lack the knowledge and experience required but are swayed by national political agendas. What can be done about that? This trend is true. Our organization, created to regulate technical shipping issues that touch on safety and sea environment protection from pollution by ships, has recently been forced to discuss economic and political matters, too, due to issues such as single-hull tanker withdrawal, determining places of refuge, etc. On the other hand, every unbiased observer must concede that some technical matters do have economic and political aspects which also have to be addressed. I would recommend that all this be examined by experts from all sides (financial, political, technical and diplomatic) under the coordination of the shipping bodies, and (unless there is national security involved) that national policies be drafted with shipping interests in mind. Shipping is probably the biggest industry on a global level but lacks a single and continuous presence and voice. Its positions and demands are hardly listened to at international forums. What is your response to this? I do not agree there is no single and continuous presence and voice, but I must agree that shipping is not listened to as much as it deserves. My conclusion from my long experience with international shipping organizations (and not just the IMO) is that shipping has both a continuous presence and one voice when there is agreement on the matters that involve it. That is not the point, however. The point is the priorities chosen as most important in forums where political decisions are made that have reverberations on shipping, where negotiations are made with political consequences or where trade-offs shape policies to protect certain productive activities (e.g. agriculture, fishing, industry) by sacrificing others (including shipping). I find this unfair and exceptionally dangerous. This is why I have repeatedly stressed that the respective policy of the countries involved ought to be supportive, promoting the interests and solving problems, while expressing appropriate care for sea environment, instead of focusing exclusively on environmental protection and ignoring shipping completely. Or, in other instances, having shipping as the easy scapegoat for the sake of other political purposes. Countries must then consider what they have to lose if they do away with their shipping. Should naval education be technical/professional or mainly academic? The easy answer to that is that since naval education is generally meant for producing staff for a technical profession, then it should be plainly technical/professional. However I believe creating such a model for every country would be risky. Policy factors vary from country to country, so any doctrines on that would fail. In my view, a guideline for governments making such decisions should be finding a solution that best serves the country’s general shipping interests and not that of individuals, irrespective of the political cost this may entail. In this sense I look forward to the measures for the «radical upgrade of studies and the status of state naval education while allowing the private sector [to be involved] in seamen’s training,» as Merchant Marine Ministry General Secretary Yiannis Ioannos has recently said. The sea labor market is supplied by countries such as the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Russia, while in the major sea forces there is a deficit of national crews, and mainly officers. In Greece this is particularly acute. How can it be solved and what can the state do? This is more complex that it seems, so I cannot offer any simple solutions. It is due to many factors, such as the country’s tourism growth, the industrialization of regions that used to rely on sea professions, new jobs in modern domains, and more. It hurts me to hear that traditional seafaring communities, including Galaxidi, where my roots lie, are seeing their youngsters turn away from maritime professions. This does not mean we should halt our efforts to attract young people to the sea. We must always bear in mind what [deceased shipping magnate] Yiannis Hadzipateras said: «Greek crews are the soul of Greek ships.» Perhaps in this campaign we ought to start with inspiring pride in the sea professions. High salaries are nice, but one should also feel proud of one’s job.