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Antwep, Zeebrugge, Ghent and Ostend yesterday signed a 30-point collaborative agreement to strengthen their competitive edge. “I suggest that I sign last: just to check if everyone signed properly,” minister of mobility and public works Hilde Crevits CD&V said during the symbolic signing of the agreement on a huge Tour & Taxis board in Brussels. Her remark was spoken in gest, but nevertheless highlighted the mistrust which has divided the four Flemish harbours for years. Some years ago Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters CD&V tried to foil the fierce competition between Zeebrugge and Antwerp in particular with his Flanders Port Area initiative, but nothing came of it and Antwerp and Zeebrugge continued to pursue each other’s container business. Now that their big Dutch rival Rotterdam is about to open two huge container terminals on the Maas 2 plain next year, this 30-point plan may have a better chance of success. One of its pivotal points is the previously announced partnership between Antwerp and Zeebrugge to attract more container traffic from Asia. “It has enormous growth potential,” CEOs of the two harbours Eddy Bruyninckx and Joachim Coens agree. Rotterdam is currently the undisputed leader on this route. The two Belgian ports will now sell their respective trump cards to increase their market share. Crevits’ action plan reaches much further than containers, however, and she has also included Ostend and Ghent in her plan, with much more intense collaboration between the four players as far as rail traffic, inland traffic and shipping, logistic platforms, IT, customs, dock workers, training, possible participation in inland terminals and the promotion of cruises is concerned. Especially Zeebrugge and Ostend are making efforts to attract cruise traffic. The four parties will join Crevits on her Asian ‘mission’ later in the year.
Meanwhile Bruyninckx believes the organization of rail traffic and customs should first be improved. Bruyninckx and many other insiders believe that Belgium miss 1 million containers to Rotterdam each year because of the inefficiency of the practically bankrupt NMBS Logistics and the inflexibility and bureaucracy of Belgian customs. Some of the most urgent obstacles that must be tackled include outdated regulations pertaining to dock workers and the power of pilots, who can paralyse shipping at the least dissatisfaction. To address the problem with customs, the four port authorities will meet with federal finance minister Koen Geens. Philippe Van de Vyvere, CEO of the Ghent harbour group Sea-Invest and a key voice, is positive about the plan, saying: “It’s a milestone. At this stage it’s mostly on paper but that makes sense. The harbours are all convinced of the merits of collaboration. It may even result in a unified port authority.” Antwerp’s CEO Bruyninckx believes the opposite is true, saying: “The harbour's local government is key to ensuring competitiveness. The decentralized model is the best.”
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