The Union of Greek Shipowners is not a private club

Τρίτη, 13 Ιουνίου 2006

Nikos Efthimiou, Chairman of the Union of Greek Shipowners (EEE), talks to Ilias Bissias

In his exclusive interview with Naftika Chronika the Chairman of the EEE, Mr. Nikos Efthimiou, spoke of his satisfaction with the Greek presence in the competitive international market despite the indifference of the Greek government and the curious stance of the EU.

After 25 years service on the executive committee of the Union, the current Chairman accepts that the general public is unaware of the importance and role of Greek ocean-going shipping, which is in part due to the long-standing convictions of the shipping community.

Maritime education and competitiveness, openness and transparency – such key concepts for shipping today constitute the everyday concerns of the Chairman of the most important shipping union in Europe.

Bold, self-assured and respectful of the maritime traditions of Piraeus, the EEE Chairman, Mr. Nikos Efthimiou, answered our questions honestly and directly. And on the issue of the maritime policy of the present government he used a saying of the late, lamented Konstantine Karamanlis: “away from home we’re doing well”. 

Mr. President, Merchant Marine Day, an initiative of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping (NEE) and supported by the Union of Greek Shipowners (EEE), was recently celebrated for the first time. The aims of the event organised in honour of this Day were twofold: first, to inform the Greek public of the contributions shipping has made to Greece, and second, to make the maritime profession more attractive to young people. Let us first consider the former aim. Why is it that the Greek public and Greek politicians are unaware of the significance of Greece’s shipping sector? Are Greek shipowners responsible for this state of affairs?

Politicians know a good deal about shipping. But they often seem to forget what they know in the face of those ever-present “political costs”. It is these “costs” that have been damaging this country for decades now.

It is true that the general public know little about ocean-going shipping, and I cannot deny that we also must take some of the responsibility for this.

We are not people who court publicity. Certainly there are some big names in Greece who belong to the shipping community, who have contributed a great deal to shipping and this country, and who are widely known, such as Onassis and Nearchos. But there are others too.

It is just that we do not like to talk about ourselves. We do not appear on the front pages of the tabloids and on the covers of celebrity news magazines – indeed, many of us actively avoid such publications. Most of us do not even want the general public to know about our charity work.

In light of this fact, successive executive committees of the EEE have, out of respect for the stance taken by their members, developed a style of public relations which befits the true wishes and views of the majority of those involved in merchant shipping.

We have been criticised over the years for taking this approach. We have even been accused of deliberately keeping a low profile. In my view it is not deliberate in a negative sense but rather a conscious choice which must, however, change in accordance with current developments.

Today we feel the need, and indeed feel obliged, to disclose issues which we could not or did not want to make public 20 or 30 years ago. This shows a clear change in mentality and strategy.

As regards the celebration of Merchant Marine Day, the Union embraced the proposal immediately. It is an excellent opportunity to show not what shipping is as a whole (this cannot be achieved in a day) but to at least highlight a small part of the industry.

Concerning the second aim of Merchant Marine Day, do you think that, in today’s society, young people will choose a career at sea, or is this wishful thinking on the part of shipping circles?

In the past a career at sea was somewhat limiting for young people, especially those from the islands. But today the profession offers a far wider range of career choices. If young people are not made aware of the opportunities inherent in a career at sea then they cannot understand the great possibilities that lie before them. The maritime profession provides great job satisfaction and pays well.

That is why the NEE printed thousands of informative leaflets, which were sent to all the upper secondary schools in the country. It will be most sad for our shipping industry if this and future campaigns are not successful. It is our technical know-how which allows us to survive in a highly competitive and difficult international market. Our knowledge and experience must not be allowed to fade away. If our work force is not renewed then our technical know-how will be lost, mainly to the detriment of Greece. We will be forced to turn to other labour markets.

Some, however, have pointed out or even complained that a number of shipowners (and the EEE itself) have never visited the country’s Merchant Marine Academies (MMAs) and, as a result, have no first-hand knowledge of the quality of training in Greece and the living conditions of the young people who will be called upon to operate one of their ships in the future. It would seem few shipowners are genuinely interested in the latest batch of young people interested in pursuing a career at sea. Hardly anyone has visited the Academy on the island of Hydra, for example, which is one of the most historic institutions of its kind in Europe. Would you agree that this is the case?

If this is the case, which I imagine it is, then I would like to point out that the Academies are not archaeological sites. One does not simply visit schools, the Panteion University, or the Faculty of Law for example. Why, then, ought someone visit the MMAs? Personally, and allow me to speak as Chairman of the EEE, I have made two visits in my capacity as Chairman, once to the Aspropyrgos Academy, where I was invited to see in the start of a new academic year, and more recently to the Kephallonia Academy with the NEE, where we made a donation in honour and in memory of Spyros Alexandratos. I do not see why the fact we do not visit the MMAs should attract complaints and reproach. The EEE is in constant communication with the Ministry of Mercantile Marine regarding maritime education and its future.

The disadvantages and inadequacies, if you will, of this training, whatever these may be, are ascertained in other ways and not necessarily on formal visits. In any case, many of the things declared by the administrations of the Academies are either untrue or exaggerated. Reports of deficiencies in terms of materials and technical infrastructures, which we ourselves have pointed out in the past, are often excessive.

Human resources, however, is an altogether different issue. I hope that the new law will truly improve the quality of the training, especially with regard to the teaching staff. More specifically I ought to make it clear that MMA professors need not necessarily have doctorates, but rather a deep and specialised university-level knowledge of the subjects they teach. Professors must also be excellent teachers, easily understandable and able to put across their love for and knowledge of their subject, rather than an aloof specialist in their field.

Of course there are some who subscribe to the mistaken notion that we want to keep the educational standards of students low because the Union has declared what I mentioned above: that MMA professors do not necessarily need to have attained PhDs. I say again that we need professors who have had a good university education, but who moreover love the subject they teach.

The chairmen of INTERTANKO and INTERCARGO often speak of transparency and openness in the world of shipping and indeed urge the Greek shipping community to embrace these concepts. What is your opinion on this matter?

Allow me to draw a distinction between these two concepts, much as both these international association chairmen have done.

Openness is one thing, transparency quite another.

No-one who knows the merchant shipping industry would claim that shipping is not intertwined with the notion of openness. It is the most open of international sectors simply because it is involved in international trade. Thus shipping cannot be distinguished in terms of its openness. We are constantly open so as to learn of international events and the opportunities they, in turn, open up for us. As regards transparency, we ought to clarify what the term means. Transparency has now come to be defined in a rather strange way. I do not think many people are interested in how much money we lose, but rather how much money we make. Is this, then, what we ought to make public? Is this “transparency”? In no other sector does something similar occur.

If, however, we are talking about transparency in terms of the management of a crisis situation, particularly following an accident at sea, then it is quite a different matter. I consider this to be an important issue. Times have changed, and in the wake of a major accident people have the right to be informed of what occurred by people in positions of responsibility. In this regard I mean not only the shipowner but also the manager of the shipping company in cases where he or she is responsible, according to the International Codes. We no longer have the “evil” shipowner who hides away, and forces all his managers to hide away too. The ISM Code no longer allows this to happen.

The headquarters of the EEE used to be in Athens. Is there a particular reason why the headquarters are today in Piraeus when the representatives of the EU bodies and the most important Ministries are based in Athens? Have you considered moving your operations?

No. And when the headquarters were in Athens, I used to wonder why. Greek shipping is inextricably linked with Piraeus. Most of us were born there. There are no plans to move our operations.

Are you disappointed that many shipping companies have moved their operations from Piraeus to other areas of the Attic basin?

I am not disappointed, but I am saddened that Piraeus was not regenerated at the right time, that the town missed some great opportunities. I am mainly referring to town access from other areas of Athens, and parking. These are entirely problems of town-planning. Those colleagues who left did so with a heavy heart, and in pragmatic response to the difficulties they were facing. Things have changed, of course, but it is very difficult for those who have invested in other areas to return.

Given that Piraeus is your home town, how do you feel about the fact that the Posidonia Exhibition is no longer held there?

It could not have happened any other way, given the circumstances.

We all wanted the Posidonia Exhibition to be held in Piraeus. There were, however, some specific difficulties which would not allow this to happen. It would have been foolish to insist on Posidonia being staged in Piraeus since this would have jeopardized both the event and its exhibitors.

But it is satisfying to note that the Board of Directors of the Piraeus Port Authority have pledged that the new exhibition hall at Palataki will be ready by 2008. At least this year the exhibition will still be held by the sea, at the Hellenikon Exhibition Centre. But we hope, and it has been promised, that Posidonia will return to its natural home in the future.

Let us remain on the streets of Piraeus, if you will, and talk a little about Grigoriou Lambraki Street [where the Ministry of Mercantile Marine is based]. Are you happy with the maritime policy drawn up by the government?

I would like to express my position with a saying of the late, lamented Konstantine Karamanlis: “away from home we’re doing well”. I say this in reference to our communications with the Ministry of Mercantile Marine regarding international matters which concern us. There is interest in everything going on at the IMO and the ILO, and especially in the EU. There is a high level of co-operation on these issues, which I would describe as excellent in every way.

As regards matters closer to home, there is co-operation but it is largely fruitless. It is clear that we have always wanted two things from the Ministry of Mercantile Marine: a competitive Greek flag and education.

As far as education is concerned, let us hope that the new law is implemented soon. As for the issue of competitiveness, apart from a few constructive efforts made in the summer of 2004, no other fundamental interventions have been made. However, we are optimistic by nature and refuse to surrender. In any case, the sea demands a healthy dose of optimism.

The notion of “political cost” has been used by successive ministers as an excuse not to make more far-reaching interventions a part of the political initiatives they propose and follow. What does this notion mean to you?

As far as “political cost” is concerned, I am not a politician to be able to respond. The way a politician thinks differs from the way I think. I am not in a position to weigh up the issues. Clearly political costs are inextricably linked with votes, a carefully counted “commodity”. If I were to try and take a detached view, however, I would say that the far-reaching interventions required by a new maritime policy looking to increase competitiveness would not incur any political costs. If not non-existent, they would be insignificant. But again, this is an issue that needs to be considered and elaborated upon by the country’s politicians, not by me.

Speaking of political costs, clear references to the marine worker unemployment have appeared in newspapers and in the announcements of certain trade unions. Do you think there are in fact unemployed seamen today?

I will answer your question with a question: if there really were unemployment among officers (and I speak only of them) then how is it possible that their wages are over twice and, in some cases, over three times that set out by the collective labour agreements? If we had such a large pool of unemployed seamen to choose from, would we also be seeing such remarkable wage packets? Somehow the things being said simply do not add up.

As regards lower ranking crew members, our position is clear. If we want to be competitive then we cannot have Greeks as lower ranking crew members. It is not simply a question of costs, but also of safety. Lower ranking crew members must all speak the same language and communicate within the framework of the same culture if they are to be uniform and quick in their reactions and movements, especially in an unexpected situation. Having people of a wide variety of nationalities within the same crew is not beneficial in terms of safety. Our current legislation is thus outdated.

Clearly there is no unemployment of note. There is frictional unemployment, of course, which has always existed in our sector. It is worth noting that no-one agrees with the unemployment figures that are made public. The data released by the Maritime Employment Agency are always called into question by the unions.

We use unemployment like a rubber band, with everyone stretching it to meet their needs. We should all finally define what unemployment actually means in the shipping industry. To this end, we must at last straighten out the books and records. Can an unemployed seaman who has not worked on a ship for five or six years meet the exacting demands set by current international legislation? Finally, we must clarify the field and come to an agreement as to who is considered a seaman: he who has a seaman’s book, or a professional?

On the same issue, I once stated the obvious and was misconstrued. Can an experienced coastal shipping captain be easily recruited to a tanker? Or vice versa? My view has been severely criticised, but I think its meaning is plain.

Let us move beyond Greek borders. Certain members of the Union see the EU as hostile to the interests of Greek shipping. Do you fall in with this view?

I would say that characterisations, such as “hostile”, lead us nowhere. The simple fact of the matter is that, as with its handling of other sectors, the Commission is pursuing misguided policies on maritime issues. Their most basic mistake concerns the issue of who should have the upper hand: Brussels or the IMO?

This confrontation, which was initiated by the Commission, has also dragged us into its maelstrom. Shipping is an international activity, and as such its fate cannot be decided by regional authorities.

The EU should of course have its views and opinions, but the regulations concerning international shipping must be taken at an international level, not a regional one. Clearly the EU has its own political costs to take into consideration, and here we are talking about not one state but 25! All the countries in Europe need to be satisfied, and at the end of the day this simply isn’t possible. Let the Commission take a clear position on how it would like the shipping industry, which supports the European Union’s trade and relations with other countries on a daily basis, to proceed. If it had clarified this issue sooner then there would not have been so many legislative changes following the Erika disaster. We have seen three different legislative packages in the space of a few years: this shows an unprecedented lack of coherence in legislative policy. 

The EU Director of Maritime and Inland Waterway Transport, Mr. Fotis Karamitsos, pointed out at a recent one-day conference organised by Naftika Chronika that the Green Paper may examine the possibility of the development of a European shipping register. What are your feelings on this issue?

A similar discussion has taken place in the past. Without having seen the Paper, I cannot take a clear position. Personally, I am against the idea of taking the Greek flag down from a ship and raising a “European” one. We have met with colleagues of Mr. Borg both in Brussels and in Athens, and have discussed various issues at length. No mention was ever made to us of a European shipping register. Other matters of exceptional importance with regard to the production of the study seem to have been of concern to the Commissioner’s office at that time.

The major industries of the EU Member states think it vital that MEPs with detailed knowledge of their concerns should be elected to the European Parliament. Do you believe that in future there should be Greek MEPs well versed in maritime matters? What would the EEE recommend to Greek political parties in this regard?

This is an issue for the political parties. We would not recommend anything. We are, at any rate, in regular communication with all Greek MEPs, whatever their political affliations.

What do you make of the fact that, unlike the MEPs of Cyprus and Malta, our MEPs do not take a unified stance on even the simplest of shipping matters?

It is a chronic attribute of our political arena. This state of affairs saddens me; it seems that our MEPs do not wish to jointly represent Greece but rather to verbally chastise each other along strict party lines. MEPs and governments ought to realise that shipping is our most important national industry. Other Member states support their national industries in every way they can, both within and beyond their borders. Shipping must not enter into bargaining bouts with Brussels. I would say that the government currently in power has understood this.

What relations does the Union maintain with international organisations such as ECSA and IACS? Are Greek positions listened to or are they overlooked, as was the case recently with IACS?

We are a member of ECSA and we are taken into account, but we clearly have a duty to understand the positions of the other shipowners’ unions.

In the case of IACS the situation is completely different. We are not members, but they are our natural technical advisors. We have no desire to enter into a confrontation with IACS; this is something that is not allowed to happen. What was recently expressed in the press was our surprise over the developments concerning the Common Structural Rules. We were led to believe that some generally accepted positions had been reached, but suddenly we saw that some of the things we had discussed were not adopted; this occurred for their own internal reasons, largely to maintain stability.

We recently met with the management of DNV in Oslo, with the L.R. in Athens, and with the CCS chairman, and we will meet with others at the Posidonia Exhibition. There will be developments regarding this issue.

In any case I would say that what is important is that the Greek shipping community is being listened to. International organisations depend upon it. Over the next few years you will see that every major union, with the exception of INTERTANKO, will be headed by a Greek. This is a great honour both for the individuals who will undertake these important and worthwhile commitments and for Greek shipping. You can therefore see in what high regard the international bodies hold the positions of Greek shipping, and its participation in their inner circles.

Global opinion is buzzing at news of a possible war in Iran. If it occurred, how would such a conflict affect our shipping industry?

Clearly we are against any act of war. We are anxiously following the developments in this region. Contrary to a commonly held but misguided view, shipping never profits from times of conflict. It does not benefit – it suffers losses. The destabilization of this particular region will surely affect international trade, while the rampant rise in petrol prices has already had a direct effect on our operations.

Are you happy with the moral, intellectual and financial support offered by the members of the EEE? Do Greek shipowners genuinely and consistently seek to involve themselves in public affairs?

According to the Greek Constitution, everyone is free to join a trade union movement – or not. Thus I do not have the right to criticise this freedom in any way. During the 25 years in which I have had the honour of being an executive committee member of the EEE, I would say that there has been no lack of love or dedication shown towards the Union by Greek shipowners. Throughout these many years, the complaints and sharp criticism we heard were from those outside the day-to-day operations of the Union. Those who later scrutinised or participated in our initiatives soon changed their minds.

I cannot detect any inadequacies in the attitudes of my colleagues towards their trade union. The Union has never distanced itself from those it represents. Indeed, our statute which allows shipping companies whose ships do not sail under the Greek flag to become members of the Union is well known. The proposal for this statute was made under the chairmanship of I. Gkoumas following the 1985 crisis, which was greatly reflected in the Greek shipping register. Now ships sailing under foreign flags can, and have, become members of the Union.

From time to time it has been said that the EEE is a private club for “big players”. This is something we have never been, nor will we ever be. In my experience, we operate under the premise of “all for one”. Even if a member of ours is offended, we will protect and support them if they have been wronged. And so we cannot be accused of being a private club. 85% of the fleet sailing under a Greek flag trusts in our work.

The English text of this interview is not an official translation of the EEE; as such, Naftika Chronika takes full responsibility for any inaccuracies it may contain.

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