The port authorities of Antwerp and Zeebrugge have agreed on a merger which will strengthen the former’s position as the second largest port of Europe and develop it into a front runner in many segments. Once completed, the ports will operate under the name ‘Port of Antwerp-Bruges’. This will reinforce Flanders’ and Belgium’s position as a major logistic gateway.
With a total volume of 231 million tons in 2020, Antwerp was able to maintain its position as the second largest port in Europe. Combined with Zeebrugge’s 47 million tons, the new port entity
will reinforce this second place with a total traffic of 278 million tons. Even then, with 469 million tons, Rotterdam will remain Europe’s number one by far.
It must be said, however, that Rotterdam owes this lead primarily to its 211 million tons of wet bulk, over 100 million of which is crude oil. Together, Antwerp and Zeebrugge account for 157 million tons of container volume or 13.8 million TEU, making it the largest containers port in Europe. In 2020, Rotterdam still had the lead, with 14.8 million TEU, but the port has already indicated that the 2020 volume will be lower.
Zeebrugge was already the largest car import port in Europe (2,191,299 in 2020) and will now be complemented by Antwerp’s 768,625 new vehicles (cars). In Antwerp’s dowry are its position as the world’s second petrochemical cluster after Houston, and the fact that it is the world’s largest storage location of raw coffee. About 15% of the total throughput of natural gas in Europe will pass through the merged port.
For decades - some would even say centuries - the two ports have tried to score off each other by approaching the same markets, both on a global and European scale. Compared to Antwerp, which has been an important European gateway since the 16th century (apart from a downfall between 1648 and 1796), Zeebrugge is relatively new. The port was built as a greenfield project at the end of the 19th century to compensate - 4 centuries later - for the demise of the port of Bruges. Hence the reference to ‘Bruges’ and not ‘Zeebrugge’ in the name of the new venture.
With the advent of the mega tankers in the 1970s, the Belgian government thought it wise to invest in a port with better accessibility. Even then, Zeebrugge was never able to match Rotterdam’s 70 ft draught. The supply of crude oil was transferred to the Rotterdam-Antwerp Pipeline (RAPL) for further refining and processing.
A new drive for competition was found in the accessibility for the newest generations of container carriers, continuously increasing in size. Contrary to Zeebrugge’s position on the North Sea, this was a bigger problem for Antwerp, situated 80 km from the North Sea and accessible only by the meandering river Scheldt.
Extensive deepening work of the river, supported by an international treaty between the governments of Belgium and the Netherlands, has enabled the accommodation of the largest container vessels to date, 60 km inland. In the long run, this inland position was seen as a trump card.
Among Zeebrugge’s advantages are its historic links to the United Kingdom, and its position on the European short sea lines ranging from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia. The short distance to the international airport of Ostend-Bruges brings potential for cooperation. Antwerp and Brussels Airport are interconnected by global freight forwarders having a presence in both gateways.
No match among equals
The merging process was supported by consultancy group Deloitte and legal firm Laga. Judging by the volume figures above, it is clear that this is not match among equals. In the new Port of Antwerp Bruges, the city of Antwerp will control 80.2% of the shares, and Bruges the remaining 19.8%. As both ports are of the Hanseatic model, meaning that the respective port companies are fully owned by the city, traditionally the aldermen of the respective ports chair the Board.
The Antwerp Port alderwoman, Annick De Ridder, will become the chairwoman of the new venture. Her counterpart in Bruges, burgomaster and port alderman Dirk De fauw, will become vice-chairman. Antwerp will have 6 seats on the Board, Bruges 3.
The incumbent CEO of the Port Authority of Antwerp, Jacques Vandermeiren, has been recommended to take the helm of the merged company. It will be headquartered in the Antwerp Port House, designed by Zaha Hadid, acclaimed by many, and disapproved of by others. The merger is said to bring no change in employment.
No European blessing needed
The merger will still have to be approved by the Belgian competition authority. No mention is made of European consent, which may not be surprising since even the new company will not have a dominating or monopolizing position in the ports of the Hamburg Le Havre range.
Antwerp and Zeebrugge are neither the first nor the only ports to join forces. In 2018, a merger was set up between the Flemish port of Ghent and the Dutch ports of Terneuzen and Flushing. As from 01JUN21, the collaboration between the Seine ports of Le Havre, Rouen, and Paris, started in 2012, will be formalized in the merged company, Haropa.
Marcel Schoeters in Antwerp
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