Europe warms to Russian shipping blockade

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Helsingborg (Sweden) (AFP) – After several days of delays and uncertainty, the Baltic Performer, a blue cargo ship loaded with bananas from Ecuador, finally docked under gray skies in the port of Helsingborg in southern Sweden.

One of Sweden’s two largest dockers’ unions, the Swedish Dockworkers Union, decided in late March not to unload ships linked to Russia in protest at Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 150-meter freighter, operated by a Swedish subsidiary of Russian company Baltic Shipping, was one of the first vessels affected by this decision.

“We block all goods related to Russia and the regime,” Rolf Lyktoft, head of the local dockers’ group, told AFP.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for Russian ships to be kept away from the ports of the “free world”.

On Tuesday, the EU executive proposed banning Russian ships from European ports.

So far, none of the 27 EU member states have enacted a national ban – unlike the UK, which did so in early March.

– 270 ships per month-

Analysts say Europe has been cautious about proceeding on the matter due to fears of Russian reprisals over its oil supplies.

In Helsingborg, Lyktoft acknowledged that the decision made by his 1,400 colleagues was largely symbolic, as only a small number of cargo ships with connections to Russia passed through Swedish ports.

But he was hoping for a snowball effect.

“We hope that the International Dockers’ Council will decide to take the next step with a global decision not to touch Russian goods,” he said.

Helsingborg port officials have kept a low profile. The Baltic Performer was finally unloaded quietly late Monday.

The ship was due to arrive in port on Saturday evening but had to delay its arrival by a few days as no dockers were willing to unload it.

The blockade imposed by the Swedish Dockers’ Union covers vessels flying the Russian flag, those owned by Russian companies but flying other flags, and those sailing to or from Russia.

The Baltic Performer was unloaded by dockers from the Transport Workers’ Union, the other major dockers’ union in Sweden.

“We think they shouldn’t have let the ship into port, but the port authorities did,” said union leader Tommy Wreeth.

Last week, his organization also announced a blockade that should come into force on May 1st – to give the shipping companies time to arrange themselves differently.

According to Wreeth, 270 ships flying the Russian flag or with connections to Russia docked in EU ports in March, including four in Sweden.

Short term disturbances

The UK blocked Russian-linked ships from its ports in early March, although Russian cargo – particularly oil – can still arrive on other ships for the time being.

Few initiatives have been taken elsewhere in Europe.

Before the EU proposal was announced on Tuesday, the dockers’ union CGT in France’s second largest port, Le Havre, said any blockade decision would have to be “taken across Europe”.

“Otherwise the port of Le Havre or other French ports would shoot themselves in the foot and traffic would just flow to other ports that turn a blind eye,” union representative Johan Fortier told AFP.

On March 3, the Port of Hamburg suspended all loading and unloading of ships to and from Russia.

However, three weeks later operations resumed “with restrictions”, a spokesman told AFP, as “not all goods are on the EU sanctions list”.

As in other European countries, German customs officials are currently checking the contents of the containers and making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The EU ambassadors are to discuss the planned ban at their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. The proposal must be approved unanimously by all 27 member states.

If the EU imposes a blockade and Russia retaliates against EU ships, “this could significantly disrupt Russia’s exports in the short term,” said Niels Rasmussen, chief analyst at shipowners’ association Bimco.

“In the medium term, however, it is likely that non-Russian and non-EU vessels will be repositioned in Russia-Europe,” while sanctions-hit tankers “enter other markets,” he told AFP.

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