Also an ecological opportunity (nd current)

In the future there could be cooperation rather than competition between the northern German ports.

Foto: imago images/Rupert Oberhäuser

“Together they can do it,” was the headline of “Die Zeit” recently. The ports in Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven could significantly increase their container throughput and capacity utilization with a cooperation. This is the conclusion reached by a report by the management consultancy Roland Berger for the logistics group HHLA.

According to this, the three ports handled a total of 13.7 million standard containers (TEU) in 2020 – had they done this together, the throughput would have increased to up to 15 million containers. This would mean that the North German association would have loaded and unloaded about as much goods as Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam. The Central Association of German Seaport Companies (ZDS) confirmed talks between the companies at its annual press conference in Hamburg on Wednesday. There are good reasons for such strategy games.

The large shipping companies and logistics groups are looking for reliable handling capacities for their ever larger giant freighters. To this end, some shipping companies are participating in terminals in the ports. As a result of the corona crisis, there was an incredible increase in freight rates. Hapag-Lloyd increased its profit tenfold. While the ports are only feeling a “slight recovery” according to ZDS, their customers are swimming in money, so to speak, which increases the pressure on port operators. For years they have been complaining about a “crooked market order”.

The most important shipping areas worldwide, the Far East and the Atlantic, are almost completely dominated by only three alliances of shipping companies. A so-called block exemption regulation by the European Commission in Brussels allows these monopoly-like consortia.

This is also felt by the traditional HHLA on the Elbe, although it accounts for two thirds of the port throughput in Germany’s largest seaport. The port benefits from its geostrategically favorable location. Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG, HHLA for short, founded in 1885, has been looking into cooperation between the eight container terminals in Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven for months.

In essence, it is about a collaboration or merger with Eurogate. The Bremen-based logistics group operates container terminals in all three ports and, for its part, uses a study by the Institute for Shipping Economics and Logistics (ISL) in its strategy discussions. According to reports, this also indicates risks. It is unlikely that so-called synergies can be mobilized, especially for Hamburg. In any case, centralization could paralyze the ports. And in any case, it is not the ports, as some politicians believe, that decide how cargo is managed, but shipowner alliances and logistics groups such as Kühne or DHL.

The world markets are not changing to the advantage of the German seaports, warns Norbert Brackmann (CDU), still acting maritime coordinator of the federal government. “From the point of view of the Federal Government, closer cooperation between the ports is desirable,” Brackmann recently said. But it is not the federal government and it is not the two company boards that decide (alone) about the future of the German Bight – including the three seaports of Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven. The cities mentioned have significant stakes in both HHLA and Eurogate. The works councils also have strong power that extends to the board members. And shares of both groups are traded on the stock exchanges. So there is also pressure from private shareholders looking to the return on their investments.

The Bremen economist Rudolf Hickel sees the avoidance of price competition at the center of the talks. Cooperation instead of competition offers further opportunities: “The greatest gain would be the contribution of economically rational, ecologically-oriented container handling in the fight against the climate catastrophe.” However, the alliance should not be used to reduce the currently applicable tariff fees. That is also what concerns Verdi. “Every cooperation costs jobs,” Verdi traffic expert Lars Stubbe has learned in the past.

ZDS President and Eurogate Supervisory Board Frank Dreeke did not want to comment on the status of the cooperation talks. Confidentiality is agreed. In principle, however, the association advocates closer cooperation on the North Sea in order to stand up to the European competition. ZDS Vice President Jens Scharner also promises to benefit from this. The head of Rostock Port is fundamentally convinced that the ports would have to »adapt in their competitiveness«. Much of the shipping traffic in the Baltic Sea depends on successful North Sea ports.

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