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Unions Call on NATO Members to Revive National Merchant Fleets

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Published Jul 10, 2024 7:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

On NATO's 75th anniversary, a coalition of 11 maritime unions from Europe and the U.S. has called on NATO member states to do more to invest in the alliance's commercial shipping industry. Signatories include America's MM&P and MEBA; the Seafarers' Union of Canada; the UK's Nautilus International; the Danish Maritime Officers; and half a dozen more.  

"We urge the alliance and its members to recognize the vital role of merchant navies in national resilience, security and defense, especially in today's volatile geopolitical landscape," the unions said in a joint statement. 

Merchant shipping underpins Western security and economic success, but the merchant fleets of NATO member nations have been in decline for decades. In peacetime, the merchant fleet's commercial transport needs can be fulfilled by foreign-built ships and lower-wage overseas labor, often registered through a competitively-priced and owner-oriented flag state. From a pure price perspective, these foreign-flag ships can outcompete vessels that are registered, built, regulated and crewed in higher-priced Western markets. 

"With rising geopolitical tensions threatening Europe with war in Ukraine, escalating violence in the Middle East, and as we witness efforts by other nations to dominate the high seas, NATO must confront the alarming decline in the numbers of qualified merchant seafarers and national-flagged merchant vessels," the unions warned. 

The group pointed to the hollowing-out of the U.S. deep sea fleet, which has shed tonnage as foreign-flag shipping has taken over international commercial routes. The UK and other NATO member states have experienced the same declines, leading to "historic lows in seafarer numbers and national flagged merchant vessels." Affordable and convenient open-registry flags are part of the problem, the unions warned. The decline of the fleet and the qualified mariner pool in the West "[impairs] our collective and individual ability to support military logistics and secure essential supply chains," exposing NATO member states to the possibility of supply interruptions for food, energy and medical goods in the event of a conflict. 

The coalition of unions called on NATO members to work together to boost the number of qualified merchant mariners and vessels within the alliance, and to take steps to address the incentive structure for foreign-flag shipping.