The eleventh-hour agreement between the UK and the European Union (EU) came as a relief to seafarers and the maritime industry more widely, after growing fears that the UK could revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms on 1 January 2021 without any time to prepare for the more profound changes that this would entail.
The new relationship between the UK and EU remains a work in progress, with key elements of detail yet to be resolved. There is a raft of features within the agreement about road transport, aviation and the oft-mentioned fishing sector, but much less attention appears to have been focussed on the implications for commercial shipping.
For seafarers, the lack of clarity over the recognition of Certificates of Competency (CoC) is a matter of considerable concern. Whilst UK recognition of EU qualifications was announced ahead of the Brexit deadline, a reciprocal agreement from the EU to recognise UK qualifications has not been agreed upon.
If left unresolved, this could have far-reaching implications and urgent steps are therefore required to clarify how this recognition will be expedited to prevent any risk to the jobs of almost 4,000 UK seafarers.
Without an EU-wide agreement, the remaining option is to secure individual agreement with each member state and little information has been provided to date about when such negotiations might take place. However, some EU countries have already signalled that they will continue to recognise UK CoCs ahead of any formal agreement with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).
There is no doubt that the agreement is a significant improvement on WTO terms, but it still falls short of achieving so-called frictionless trade between the EU and the UK. This will inevitably create an increase in bureaucracy and new checks at the borders, which in the short term is likely to lead to additional costs and disruption to freight. However, this will be partly mitigated by the welcome acknowledgement of the amount of trade carried on roll-on/roll-off services and the agreement for pre-arrival processing of documentation to reduce delays.
It appears that UK ships are now no longer automatically able to participate in EU cabotage (domestic maritime services between the ports of member states). Therefore, the question arises as to whether the UK will take steps to secure UK cabotage for UK registered vessels. Alternatively, the UK could build upon the new points-based immigration system and National Minimum Wage legislation to apply common standards to all vessels engaged in UK cabotage trades (trade between UK ports and to the UK continental shelf).
The fisheries aspect of the agreement stipulates conditions for the crewing and effective control of fishing vessels registered in the UK which go beyond the current requirements of commercial shipping registered in the UK.
There is a need for clarification as to why this only applies to fishing vessels, which have no specific additional obligations under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nautilus has always maintained that ships registered in the UK must maintain a genuine link to the UK. The agreement appears to hold UK fishing vessels to a higher test than applied to commercial vessels and there is currently no detail available to why this is the case.
More broadly, at the heart of the Nautilus Charter for Jobs and the Union's Fairness campaign is a call on the UK to ensure that all existing health, safety, environment and employment legislation is maintained following the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Whilst there is some mention of maintaining these standards in the agreement, there does not appear to be enough detail on any commitment to maintain the rights of workers. This needs to be urgently clarified to rule out any prospect of a 'race to the bottom' on workers' rights.