Sunday, April 26, 2015
English French German Spanish

The Greeks Sail Away (June 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The closure of the Zeebrugge-Rosyth ferry will be a serious blow to Scotland, ending the nation's sole direct sea link with Europe


Fear the Greeks bearing gifts? Fear them even more when they sail off. Attica Lines has announced the closure of its Zeebrugge-Rosyth ferry service from September 13: a modest pebble on the cairn of Gordon Brown's woes, but serious enough, and for once shared with Alex Salmond. Attica's costs - rising along with the growth in the oil price - are paid in expensive Euros, its income is in devalued sterling. But it's a serious blow to Scotland, as the nation's sole direct sea-link with Europe.

In all of this, court decisions in faraway Stuttgart must apparently count for little, but on March 17 Thomas Betz was sent down for five years plus a personal fine of €2 million and a corporate fine of €15 million. The charge-sheet of crimes included fraud (€9.6 million), bribery (for 2,700 work permits), false accounting and coercion. Who Betz? Clap eyes on any motorway and within a few minutes you'll see one of his blue-and white or blue-and-yellow Mercedes-Benz articulated HGVs.

Business crime is usually associated with little guys struggling to survive. Not so with Betz: his Reutlingen-based company is Europe's biggest haulier. His crews were recruited from Bulgaria, his trucks (brand new from Mercedes-Benz) licensed in Azerbaijan. European regulations on health and safety were disregarded as flagrantly as driving time or staff insurance. Betz has been driving a 40-ton truck through European transport law, and hardly anyone has complained. He is the business end of a ruthless industry for whom Jeremy Clarkson is the Crazy Frog mascot on the windscreen.

From the start of the Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry service in 2002 motorist numbers were high, but apart from smaller Scottish hauliers, freight grew only slowly. At the same time the - occasional - inspections of freight trucks at Dover found according to the Today programme (1 November 2006) 60% overloaded. In Germany, a timely call from the deputy head of the Federal Freight Office, Herr Kreienhop, to Betz, prevented such indignities. Were attempts made in Britain to restrain similar extra-legal activities, and propel trucks towards seaborne safety and ecology? We don't know.

In 2005 the ferry frequency fell from daily to three days a week. Presumably, with the UK economy cracking up and fuel prices soaring, the private equity boys who have since January owned Attica decided that enough was enough. The efficient rail connections between St Pancras and Kings Cross, making Brussels-Edinburgh possible in not much over seven hours, might also be starting to limit the market.

But the ferry crisis again puts the politics of the Union on the spot. The mounting income from oil, about the only positive force in the UK economy, is keeping the place above water, but in Scotland (traditionally handicapped by long distances and high transport costs) the issue is peculiarly sensitive. The black stuff sloshing onshore at Sullom Voe or Cruden Bay at $130 a barrel keeps Brown from going completely down the Swannee, but precious little of it feeds through to the locals. When the ferry stops, a lot of the Scots hauliers who are its keenest users, and are already hit by fuel increases, will probably go out of business.

There could be rather more than a shadow of the Norwegian-Swedish tensions of a century ago, when the maritime Norwegians' frustration with the land-bound Swedes led to divorce. Sensible Norway, with its large merchant marine, low-speed oil extraction, and huge oil fund, may be well placed to intervene. It's now twice as wealthy per capita as the UK. The Greeks sail, the Vikings land?

Home > Comment > The Greeks Sail Away (June 2008)