LUXEMBOURG (AFP) – Greece, Cyprus and Malta yesterday joined forces to block a European Union agreement on criminal sanctions for acts causing maritime pollution, sending the issue back to EU heads of state and government for debate at their Brussels summit on November 4 and 5. The three countries, which host large merchant marine fleets, voiced their opposition at a meeting of EU justice ministers here, most of whom advocated tough action in the wake of the November 2002 Prestige disaster. The Prestige oil tanker went down off the Spanish coast in high winds, breaking in two and causing the worst oil slick Spain has ever known, with beaches being polluted across its north coast as far as France. In all, the Prestige leaked some 64,000 tons of its fuel cargo into the sea, polluting almost 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) of coastline. Dutch Justice Minister Piet-Hein Donner, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, told the meeting that it was past time to act on sanctions, noting that in the aftermath of the Prestige sinking the EU executive commission asked that the matter be settled by the end of 2003. But in Athens, deputy government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros declared: «Greece has no intention, and no interest, in cooperating in the criminalization of seafarers. Others, not us, are responsible for environmental disasters.» According to the draft EU directive, individuals responsible for pollution could face prison terms of up to 10 years and fines of at least 150,000 to 1.5 million euros ($2 million), with no upper limit. The text completes legislation approved by the European Parliament in a first reading in June that would require member states to apply «effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions,» either criminal or administrative, on those who cause maritime pollution. The first draft was approved by a qualified majority of EU transport ministers, with Greece, Malta and Cyprus dissenting. The actual content of the sanctions, however, requires unanimous backing. Greece, Malta and Cyprus argue that the sanctions go beyond international conventions and could prove detrimental to commercial competition. They are seeking a 3-million-euro ceiling on fines that could be imposed by member states. The proposed penalties would target «grave negligence» in addition to carelessness and intentional actions on the part of shipowners, captains, crew members and registering companies in the event of oil slicks or the emission of polluting waste. The captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras of Greece, was detained without trial in Spain for nearly two years. Early this month, the Spanish government authorized Mangouras’s release on the condition that he return to Spain to stand trial. Greek shipowners have blamed Spanish authorities for the accident because they allegedly refused the vessel access to its ports when it was in distress at sea. The Greek Shipowners Union (UGS) is among those hoping to scuttle the EU proposals, which they have called «illegal» and «contrary to existing international regulations.» Greece’s booming shipping industry is a key provider of foreign funds for the country’s investment-starved economy. According to figures from the London-based Greek Shipping Cooperation Committee (GSCC), Greek companies in 2003 controlled 9.3 percent of the world’s ships in service and on order, 18.3 percent of deadweight tonnage and 15.9 percent of gross tonnage.