Introduction

On 17 April 2014 the European Parliament amended and endorsed a Directive for Maritime Spatial Planning (“MSP”)[1], aimed at achieving a more coordinated maritime planning process within the European Union. On 23 July 2014 the amended Directive was adopted by the Council.

The rationale behind introducing the MSP Directive is that nowadays a great diversity of maritime activities co-exist, such as oil, gas and wind installations, pipelines, cables and shipping routes, which require careful coordination. The European Commission maintains the view that a coherent process of planning human maritime activities will lead to more certainty for stakeholders and to sustainable development.

Maritime Spatial Plans

Some EU coastal states already had a full fledged maritime planning system in place. The Netherlands, for example, adopted an integrated management plan for the North Sea[2]. Of particular importance to the Netherlands was to ensure safe access to Dutch ports, such as the port of Rotterdam. Other states with an MSP-system in place include Germany, France and the United Kingdom.[3] After the entry into force of this Directive, other EU Member States  will have to follow suit shortly. The MSP Directive does not alter any other EU instrument[4] and is largely procedural in nature. It obliges every Member State to establish maritime spatial plans at the Member State level and to send them to the European Commission. All EU Member States will have to establish plans as soon as possible, but at the latest by April 2021 (Article 15), and the plans need to be renewed every ten years (Article 6).

Minimum requirements

Nevertheless, the MSP Directive does formulate certain minimum requirements for the plans (Articles 4-8). The plan needs to take into account land-sea interactions, environmental, economic and social aspects as well as safety aspects and needs to be coherent (Article 6). Furthermore, the MSP Directive lists activities which may be included in these plans, such as aquaculture and fishing areas, installations and infrastructure for the extraction of energy resources, maritime transport routes, military training areas, pipeline routes, nature, designated tourism and protected areas (Article 8).

In earlier communications the Commission stressed that these plans also require a single or streamlined license application process (handled by a coordinating administrative body).[5] However, the MSP Directive does not specifically deal with the national application process and whether these procedures will improve because of the Directive remains to be seen. According to the European Commission, the competent authorities will be able to draw on the holistic (environmental) assessments laid down in these plans when making a decision on individual projects.[6]

Data sharing

Aforementioned activities often have a cross-border dimension. For example, the 2012 decision of Belgian authorities to issue a license for an offshore wind farm (“Norther”) was perceived to be conflicting to shipping routes to Dutch ports by Dutch authorities.[7] In light of these problems, articles 10-12 MSP Directive aim at ensuring that national authorities share data and that their maritime spatial plans are coherent with, and coordinated across, the maritime region concerned. Where possible, the EU member states shall endeavor, where possible to cooperate with authorities of non-EU countries. However, these provisions are not very specific on what data needs to be shared and how the cooperation will have to take place in practice.   

The text adopted by the European Parliament does not contain the originally proposed provision attributing power to the European Commission to adopt implementing acts related to data-sharing and reporting obligations. [8] In this regard, the Directive can be seen as confirmation that the actual maritime decision- and plan making remains a task for Member States themselves.