European Inland Navigation can resurface stronger than ever

12 Aug 2020

COVID-19 has kept a tight grip on the world this year. It made us change some of our long-standing habits overnight – we went from buying what we want, to buying what we need. Transport – private and commercial – was decimated, considerably reducing pollution almost instantly. Cities such as New Delhi could breathe again and Mount Everest became visible again from Nepal, for the first time in decennia. Every government had to adopt emergency measures to keep their population healthy. There’s no denying that COVID-19 has shaken the world. No sector was spared, most certainly not in transport.

In their open letter, Joris Kerkhofs, ETF Inland Navigation Section Chair and Jacques Kerkhof, ETF Inland Navigation Section Vice-Chair and Chair of the ETF Tug Committee reflect on the effects of the crisis on inland waterways transport (IWT) in Europe. They explore the ways this crisis has impacted the sector and how we can ensure that it plays a role in the sustainable future of European transport.


Inland Navigation in Europe changed drastically over the last 10 years. We witnessed a fundamental growth towards a full-fledged professional and responsible transport sector. The 4th industrial revolution is ongoing, with many new technologies making their way to the sector. AIS, a completely new generation of engines, a multitude of pilot projects testing new fuels, propulsion systems and vessel designs and remotely operated activities are just a few of the novelties that will catapult this transport mode into the future.  Governance over the sector shifted gradually from a river basin approach towards a holistic trans-European one. The sectors’ social partners, together with the many other stakeholders, join forces through multiple projects guiding this process of change to ensure that full efficiency is the only turnout.

In a world of speed, where lies the future of Inland Navigation as a mature transport mode? What lessons can we learn from the past? The last financial and banking crisis left the European IWT sector in shreds. A fragmented industry crumbled fast when financial resilience was depleted, following the collapse of the banking industry. Freight rates and tariffs torpedoed to sub-zero levels and many owner-operators continued sailing making huge losses. A huge overcapacity due to speculation drained the sector. 

It took almost 10 years to recover from this blow – and then the new crisis knocked on the front door. 

With it, the entire passenger sector – the river cruise activities – halted completely, a full season gone to waste. The River Cruise sector will never be the same again.  Only in June, very prudent announcements were made that some companies would resume activities with reduced capacity.  As the 2nd wave is in full deployment as we speak, the 2021 season might also be affected, as bookings usually start early. IWT freight transport, in general, fared better, as essential goods and materials needed to be delivered on time, although after a couple of months a clear drop in demand is noticeable.  All in all, a 30% drop is what the common estimates show. 

Now is the time to reflect on the situation and decide how we want the sector to rebuild. What are some of the potentials of inland navigation we need to build on to make sure it lives up to its key role in the overall logistics and supply chain?


The “just in time” business model evolves around reliability and has nothing to do with speed.  IWT for decades was a very reliable transport mode, and systematically freight volumes shifted towards waterborne transport. The traditional modal split models indicated a bright future for IWT where the Port of Antwerp is one of the best examples ever, with IWT having over 30% of the share. This growth, however, relies on infrastructure, and that requires investment. Climate change is already resulting in early low water levels, late high-water levels.  Combine this with the outdated infrastructure of locks and bridges and ill tidings arise.  The European Commission, if really in favour of zero emissions, together with the Member States must give absolute preference to waterborne transport when it comes to financial support for renovating/novel infrastructure and water management.


IWT must play a big role in the greening of the European economy, as it is one of the most climate-friendly modes of transport. To grow its importance in European transport, the EU has to make IWT an essential part of the Green Deal strategy. Fundamental changes need to be introduced, such as abolishing international borders and bottlenecks in waterway management and fully endorsing a socially viable sector by ensuring a level playing field. First and foremost, the social aspect can be strengthened by closing loopholes in existing legislation that systematically promote social dumping practices and the race to the bottom.  The sector can only be ready for the future if we build on the key relationship between green and social policies.


Europe must take up the challenge and further professionalise the sector. The long-term social and environmental sustainability of the sector can only be built with a highly skilled workforce. The EU must work on enhancing and promoting skills and competency-based structures and systems towards a social technological transition.  

This process of building a strong future-proof sector cannot be left to the market alone as it is not an automatic one.  Cost and availability – both financially and economically, as well as from a sustainability standpoint (emission, energy, climate friendliness, safety, etc…) – has to be calculated and politically corrected and guided.

ETF pledges to continue to work to create a strong, truly sustainable sector. We defined our long-term strategy 10 years ago around the cluster of working time calculation and registration, new crewing regulation, social security coordination and digital controlling capacity. CESNI, the European Committee for Standards in Inland Navigation is at the centre of developing this strategy.  Together with Member States, River Commissions, European Commission and all relevant stakeholders, standards are being systematically defined to govern the IWT sector at EU level and beyond, with the Member States from the Danube region and the Danube Commission are involved as well.  ETF is very active within CESNI and steers the discussions in the right direction.  ETF is a fierce defender of new crewing regulation, one standard for all navigation in Europe, but we see more and more advantages in a directive, where every concerned Member State can tailor-make it around a core standard.  This instrument could more easily govern future changes and allow for country-based characteristics too. 

The COVID-19-pandemic caused some serious delays in these endeavours, but the European Social Partners are committed to reaching a joint agreement before September 2021 where everyone working on board of a river cruise vessel will benefit from decent social security coverage and working terms and conditions.

Despite the challenging situation we find ourselves in, we believe we can come out of it stronger than before. Armed with the strength we get from working together, in unity, we can shape the future of IWT in Europe. To all working in the European IWT sector in whatever capacity, we extend an invitation to join us on the way. Join the European navigating family.

Together, we can continue building a reliable, green and professional sector that is fit for the future.


Joris & Jacques