For well over a decade, the Philippines has been in the crosshairs of the European Commission and its inspection arm, the European Maritime Safety Agency. In total, EMSA has made eight inspection visits to the country (the last one n 2020) to check if it has given full and complete effect to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

[Click here to download the 2005-2021 list of EMSA inspections in non-EU countries.]

The jury is still out on the matter. At this point, it would not be amiss to ask why the European Commission has placed the Filipinos under such close scrutiny. True, EMSA inspectors have been spotting certain deficiencies in the Philippines’ implementation of the STCW regime. But there’s an unofficial reason not known to many outside the EU. It has to do with what happened in 2011 thousands of miles away from the EU headquarters in Brussels.


Ripples from the Rena


In the wee hours of 9th October 2011, the container ship MV Rena ran aground on New Zealand’s Astrolabe Reef. The resulting oil spill has been described as that country’s worst environmental disaster. The Filipino master was later found guilty on several charges, including doctoring the ship documents. He and his chief officer were sentenced to seven months in jail, but both were freed and deported after serving half their sentence.

A well-placed source in the EU camp once told Marine Café Blog that the Rena incident had caused a great deal of concern within the European Commission. What if a cargo vessel under a Filipino captain were to sink or run aground in EU waters, resulting in an oil spill? That fear was apparently enough to trigger a closer scrutiny by EMSA of the Philippines’ system of maritime education and training. The source added that it would be a different story if a Indian captain was involved in the Rena accident, since India was known to have good maritime schools.


Tunnel vision


Those who think that this smacks of racial discrimination would be justified in doing so. Horrible as it was, the Rena oil spill was an isolated incident. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the proverb goes. Moreover, the mishap was a case of bad judgement, dishonesty and human foible on the part of one Filipino captain. To suggest that it is a reflection on the Philippines’ maritime educational system or on Filipino ship officers in general is a big mental leap. It is illogical.

Interestingly, the EU was greeted by the Costa Concordia disaster on 13th January 2012 — just three months after the Rena episode. It happened right on EU waters; 32 lives were lost; and the cruise ship was under the command of an Italian master. Apparently, this was not enough to prompt a second look at Italian maritime education. Some hearts were even bleeding for Francesco Schettino, the Costa Concordia master. They called for mercy and freedom for the man soon after he was placed under house arrest to face investigation.

The ill-starred Costa Concordia
Photo courtesy of EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The beam in their eye


The following EMSA statistical table is enlightening. It shows the number of marine casualties and incidents per annum involving EU–flag and non–EU–flag vessels

Source: Annual Overview of Marine Casualities and Incidents 2020 (EMCIP)

EMSA gives the following explanation for the rather startling figures:

“The higher ratio of EU/EEA flag States affected by a marine casualty or incident in comparison with non-EU/EEA flag States is due to the scope (geographical and in terms of vessels and accidents) of the Accident Investigation (AI) Directive. Marine casualties and incidents on-board ships flagged in non-EU/EEA countries which do not involve substantial EU/EEA interests, and which do not occur in EU/EEA waters are not within the scope of the Directive and therefore not reported in EMCIP.” [EEA stands for European Economic Area. — BU ]

But however one looks at the numbers, one thing is clear: the EU has its own share of marine accidents — some of them, in the words of EMSA, “very serious”.  Sea mishaps have no nationality. And regardless of their race, ship captains can make grievous errors.

The bureaucrats in Brussels would do well to remember the biblical passage (Matthew 7:3):  ‘Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thy own eye?’

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