Committed to be pro-active and to increase the transparency of the

In May, Isabelle Ryckbost was appointed ESPO’s new Secretary General, succeeding Patrick Verhoeven, who took up the position of Secretary General at the European Community Shipowners' Associations (ECSA). In May, Isabelle Ryckbost was appointed ESPO’s new Secretary General, succeeding Patrick Verhoeven, who took up the position of Secretary General at the European Community Shipowners' Associations (ECSA).

A few months ago, Isabelle Ryckbost took up her new position as ESPO Secretary General. She succeeded Patrick Verhoeven, who led the ESPO secretariat for the past thirteen years, and became the new Secretary General of the European Community Shipowners' Associations (ECSA). GreenPort Editor Daniëlla Arbyn Havugimana had a double interview with Mrs Ryckbost and Mr Verhoeven.

You have both been active in the port sector for more than 10 years. What has been the highlight in your careers so far?

Patrick Verhoeven: There have been several, but in the ESPO context I still have a fond memory of the famous ‘Oslo agreement’ of June 2001. We then had the ESPO General Assembly at the Bristol Hotel in Oslo, where we were supposed to develop a common viewpoint on the first ‘ports package’ of the European Commission. During the day we failed to find consensus, so one of our members (Eddy Bruyninckx from Port of Antwerp) suggested the secretariat would have another go at wording a compromise, whilst all members were enjoying the official General Assembly dinner at the Oslo Town Hall. Marie-Philippe Coloby, our policy advisor at the time, and myself had a go at it and we thought we found a reasonable wording which we took that same evening to members at the Town Hall, inviting those interested for a nightcap at the hotel to discuss our proposal that very same night. A fair amount showed up and we had probably one of the most emotional discussions ever in ESPO. Admittedly, some were invigorated somewhat by the nightcaps! But what matters is that we had a compromise in the morning, which was unanimously adopted by all members. Whether they’d all sobered up by then or not, I don’t know, but I am still quite proud of what we achieved in Oslo. As a result, I have made it a habit to always stay at the Bristol Hotel, whenever I am in Norwegian capital. Maybe I should ask for a reduction next time I go there!

Isabelle Ryckbost: In fact, I have only been working “in the port sector” for the last four years. It is true however that when I was working as an assistant for MEP Dirk Sterckx port policy issues were high on our political priorities. If I look back at that period, I think the work I have done in assisting Sterckx in all his parliamentary work on the maritime safety package in the aftermath of the Prestige accident is something I am proud of. Already at that time I was linking up regularly with all maritime and port stakeholders to try to find a compromise that means a step forwards towards maritime safety, but at the same time avoiding a policy that would put too much burden on the sector. As lobbyist for a certain sector though, it is always difficult to put your stamp on a certain achievement. Policy making is a very slow process of give and take of all players. But if I would have to give you an achievement, I believe that EFIP over the last years has succeeded or at least contributed in putting inland ports on the map. First politically, giving inland ports an identity. Secondly, literally, by obtaining a place for inland ports in both the TEN-T core and comprehensive network. But as I said, it is difficult in our job to claim the merit of a certain result because it is often the work of many.

How do ESPO and ECSA deal with climate change?

Patrick Verhoeven: In ECSA, we are very pleased that the EU in the end chose to align with a more international approach. Their proposal for a Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) instrument is a fair one, which we support, despite some technical issues that need to be settled. I can’t think what would have happened if the Commission would have chosen to include shipping in the Emission Trading Scheme for instance. We probably owe it to our colleagues in aviation for pointing out the major practical and political obstacles that would have occurred if Europe would have gone ahead with this. But I also want to stress the fact that we should be more pro-active as an industry. Several of our members are taking considerable efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and I think we have to invest more time and effort in promoting these best practices throughout the industry. I loathe the idea that we are still perceived by many as being ‘part of the problem’, whereas there is a genuine willingness to contribute to solutions.

Isabelle Ryckbost: Climate change is of high priority for European seaports. An increasing number of port authorities calculate their carbon footprint and set reduction targets towards becoming carbon neutral. In addition, many European port authorities are active partners of the World Port Climate Initiative and join efforts with their global counterparts in projects targeting carbon emissions and climate change. At an ESPO level, initiatives such as EcoPorts and the environmental part of our ongoing work on performance indicators make specific reference to carbon footprint and emission reduction. Furthermore, energy consumption and climate change is a separate chapter within the recently published ESPO Green Guide. On what shipping greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, ESPO supports the EC proposal for a Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) mechanism. ESPO is pleased that the Commission finally favoured the current step-by-step and rational approach instead of proposing any regional market based measures that could have had serious consequences both for the shipping industry and the European ports.

What role does measuring environmental performance play in running a green port?

Isabelle Ryckbost: By definition a “green port” needs to provide evidence of its green credentials. Measuring environmental performance on the basis of selected environmental indicators is of outmost importance for the credibility of the sector. ESPO has a clear commitment to increase transparency in the port sector. This is demonstrated through its longstanding support for the EcoPorts monitoring and reporting mechanisms. ESPO has also taken the lead in the PPRISM[1] project, which further enhances the monitoring and reporting culture. ESPO strongly encourages its members to monitor their environmental performance. “To measure is to know” and without knowledge one cannot manage. And for me, it is mostly interesting that ports can, as to say “look in the mirror” and measure their performance, see how they score compared to the average without having to make these results public. This really avoids that only the good pupils are participating because they want to show off. Those who just starting working on their environmental performance can assess were they stand. The result of the “Self Diagnosis Method” can be used internally to plead for further action, to raise awareness but will never damage your port.

What are the main environmental challenges facing ship owners and ports?

Patrick Verhoeven: Emissions are certainly at the top range of challenges at the moment, whether they are caused by sulphur, carbon, nitrogen or particulate matter. Certainly the sulphur norms in the ECA are creating a splitting headache for some. I am afraid that by 2015 we will have a much dispersed picture in the industry and I still keep thinking we could have avoided all this if the ECA decision would have been based on a proper impact assessment. Next to emissions, there are also issues about ballast water and ship recycling. Apart from the economic dire straits we are in at the moment, the environment no doubt ranks as a top concern for us. But again, I believe we should deal with it in a much more pro-active manner. In that sense, I admit we can learn a lot from the port sector. Initiatives as the ESPO Green Guide and EcoPorts have contributed very positively to the environmental track record of European port authorities. We should do the same in shipping and not be afraid to publicly share our experience. Jokingly, I often say to my ECSA members that too many of them are admirers of Voltaire who once said that ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’ (to live happily, live hidden). That philosophy doesn’t work any longer, I am afraid.

Isabelle Ryckbost: Since 1996, ESPO has been running periodically an environmental review/survey within its membership asking the ports what they see as the main environmental challenges. The latest exercise took place last spring and identified air quality as the top priority. We see that this is in line with the international and European policy agenda. The European Commission is reviewing its EU Air Quality policy. On top of that several ongoing initiatives aim at controlling the emissions of air pollutants by vessels. The management of garbage/port waste remains high within the environmental priorities of the sector. It is however for the first time that ship waste has entered the top-10 of priorities. This is probably due to the ongoing review of the port reception facilities directive and opens a whole debate: Will the existing port reception facilities be sufficiently well equipped to cope with the new types of waste and increased volumes? Moreover, ports are increasingly looking at energy consumption. Some environmental issues, namely noise management, dredging, dust and port development, appear consistently within the top 10 of priorities in Europe since back in 1996. Finally, water quality also appears within the 2013 top-10 of priorities.

What is your view on the ongoing discussion on Ship Recycling? Is the EU on the right track regarding this topic?

Patrick Verhoeven: We were able to stop some of the far-reaching ideas that emerged from Parliament. That is positive. But the downside is that, as shipowners, we suffered from collateral damage image-wise. I am sure that many MEPs consider us to be reckless polluters and abusers of poor labour conditions in countries where ship recycling is cheap. We need to be aware of this and, I keep repeating myself, deal with it in a much more pro-active manner. There is an international convention dealing very adequately with this issue and we should actively push for ratification so that it can enter into force as soon as possible.

Isabelle Ryckbost: The so-called “beaching” problem is a serious problem. I can fully understand that, when faced with such an issue as politician, you want to be the one that solves the problem. But Europe’s tools to intervene, or solve such an international and complex problem are limited. Even if I fully understand the rationale of the proposals that were introduced in the Parliament, they would not lead to the hoped-for results. On the contrary, they would have damaged the sector and European ports in a disproportionate way. But as Patrick said, the sector, and also the port sector, could play an active role in pushing for a ratification of the international conventions.

What is you view on the fact that ships are being built larger, which implies an environmental impact on the development of port infrastructure and services? Don’t you fear distortion of competition if EU ports are unable to adapt to these changing demands?

Patrick Verhoeven: When I started in the industry, a container vessel of 5000 TEU was considered to be huge. Now it is a feeder size. The limit of container ship size has been predicted many times, but so far ships are still getting bigger and bigger. I am an economist by training, and therefore familiar with economies and diseconomies of scale, but so far the sky seems to be the limit. I notice however that port operators are becoming more and more vocal about the practicalities involved. Who knows, maybe we are reaching the end of what is possible? But don’t quote me on it!

Isabelle Ryckbost: The increasing size of ships is something that intrigues me. I see that the venue of the biggest ship is often celebrated in ports: it is a press moment, a way for a port to show its success. But of course, it implies a lot of challenges, challenges that go far beyond the port infrastructure and port access: are your port services (e.g. pilots...) prepared for these ships, what about your transhipment capacity, can the hinterland follow...? And in that respect, welcoming such a vessel is maybe not always a blessing. I am sure that the people in the business are reflecting on all these aspects and I also believe that this evolution will not be endless.

Which lessons have you both learnt in your former positions, and will help you in your new functions?

Patrick Verhoeven: One of my former Chairmen in ESPO, Victor Schoenmakers, who is also a dear friend, always reminded me of the wonderful Dutch expression ‘Hoed u voor daadkracht’, which can be translated as ‘Beware of decisiveness‘. I feel passionate about what I do and that means I often have the inclination to react immediately to something I like or don’t like. But I learned that it is always good to let it lie for one night and then reconsider in the morning whether my first reaction is still fit for publication or not.

Isabelle Ryckbost: Behind each job, each point of view, each point that is defended there is a valuable person. So even if you have conflicting views or interest, always respect the person that defends it. If you don’t agree, try not to attack the person, just the ideas he or she is defending. In general, putting everything a little bit in perspective always helps. Patrick, among other books, you wrote “The Ports Portable”, a travel guide to port cities. Won’t you miss travelling to port cities now you left ESPO? Patrick Verhoeven: I am sure I won’t, because many ECSA members have their headquarters in some of the loveliest port cities in Europe. And - now I can say this more easily than when I worked in ESPO - I am fortunate to live in what is arguably the most wonderful port city in the world, which is my hometown Antwerp!

Besides your jobs, what interests or pastimes do you have?

Patrick Verhoeven: Too many. I am astonished sometimes to hear about people who retire from professional life and are then faced with a ‘black hole’. I wouldn’t know what to do first! I have a strong academic interest, admittedly in ports and shipping, and a heart for culture, especially classical music, cinema and literature. I wrote two walking guides about famous Antwerp cultural figures and I am preparing a third one right now. My great ambition is to write one day a work of fiction, something I never tried so far and I am not quite sure I would be able to. But at least I would like to try it. Apart from that, I enjoy the good life basically, going out to restaurants and pubs. But that is fortunately something I can easily combine with my professional life. The maritime sector has quite a reputation in that respect!

Isabelle Ryckbost: In fact my main pastimes are my family and my house, or wouldn’t you call that a pastime... (laughs) I love cooking, wining and dining with friends. I always start the day with reading the newspaper: this is “my” little half an hour of the day. I am very much interested in politics and love to follow what is going on. But of course, if my 24 hours were as long as Patrick’s are, I would follow painting classes or classes of photography, read more, travel more and would do more sports (just to be a little bit more healthy).

Patrick, which advice would you give Isabelle, who succeeded you in ESPO?

Patrick Verhoeven: I don’t think I can recommend Isabelle anything. I learned quite a few things from her actually; her professional experience from working in the European Parliament is no doubt an invaluable asset to ESPO ... well, OK, if I have to give one piece of advice: never lose your sense of humour!


[1] For more information about PPRISM :


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