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The EU Maritime Profile – the maritime cluster in the EU

EU Maritime Profile banner

With nearly a fifth of all world vessels by gross tonnage flying an EU Member State flag, the European Union has a powerful maritime presence. In this section, you can find out more about:

The EU Member State-flagged fleet and its composition

Ownership and age

Port calls in the EU and around the world

The cruise sector in the EU

EU ports

Shipbuilding in the EU

All these elements make up an important part of the EU Maritime Profile and show the importance of the maritime cluster in the European Union.

The EU Member State-flagged fleet and its composition

Ships have to be registered (flagged) to a country in order to sail. The EU Member State-flagged fleet represents a significant part of the world fleet, both in terms of absolute numbers, gross tonnage (the ship’s internal volume) and deadweight (how much weight a ship can carry):

In terms of absolute numbers and percentage, the EU Member State-flagged fleet contains a large variety of vessel type, with nearly 40% of the world’s ropax fleet (vessels that can carry cars and passengers) and over 30% of all cruise vessels:

In terms of cargo ships, the EU Member State-flagged fleet has a higher percentage (when compared to the rest of the world fleet) of container ships than of other vessel types, equivalent to approximately one-fifth of all container ships:

In terms of gross tonnage of cargo ships, EU Member State-flagged ro-ro cargo vessels make up over half of the world’s ro-ro cargo fleet. Ro-ro cargo vessels transport things like cars, trucks and railway carriages:

In the passenger sector, EU Member State-flagged passenger vessels represent a higher percentage of all global passenger vessels:

And in terms of gross tonnage, EU Member State-flagged ropax vessels make up over half of the total of all ropax ships worldwide

Ownership and age

At individual vessel level, nearly a fifth of the world fleet is owned by EU nationals or companies. That increases to nearly a third in terms of gross tonnage.

In some segments, such as ropax and ro-ro cargo, more than half of the world fleet is owned by EU nationals or companies:

For a variety of reasons, ship owners may choose to register (flag) their ships in a country other than where their business is located. This can be because of the manager who has assumed the responsibility for operation of the ship is in a different country, competitive taxing regimes, high safety standards which increase efficiency (for example, less port State control inspections because of a flag included in the MoU “white lists”) the flexibility to recruit foreign labour and lighter regulations.

Nearly two thirds of all ships belonging to owners or companies based in the EU fly an EU Member State flag:

The ratio drops when gross tonnage is taken into account, showing that larger ships owned by EU businesses or individuals are more likely to be registered in a non-EU country:

By and large, individual ships registered under an EU Member State flag are likely to be owned by EU businesses or individuals:

However, this percentage drops slightly when gross tonnage is taken into account:

The age of a ship is an important factor in areas like energy efficiency and environmental performance. Generally, the younger a ship is, the more efficient it tends to be (although other elements, like the ship’s operations, can be equally important). Ships owned by EU nationals or companies are, on average, slightly younger than those with international owners, while the average age of ships flying an EU flag is slightly older than the international mean.

Once a ship is flagged (registered) to a certain country, that registration can – and sometimes does – change.

Port calls in the EU and around the world

Port calls refer to ships visiting ports; this can be to load and unload goods, or to pick up or drop off passengers. EU ports have more than a fifth of all port calls worldwide:

EU-owned and flagged vessels represent slightly more than, and slightly less than, a quarter of all port calls around the world respectively:

And the vast majority of port calls in the EU are made by ships that are owned or flagged in EU Member States:

The cruise sector in the EU

The cruise industry represents an important sector in the EU maritime cluster. Many operators and cruise lines are European based, most cruise ships are built in European based shipyards and fly an EU Member State flag. European seas and ports are among the major destinations in the global cruise sector, with more than 60% of worldwide port calls made in EU ports.

The cruise sector was the most affected by COVID-19. Every major cruise line in the world suspended departures in March 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak grew. and the sector is constantly recovering, as it is evident by the increasing number of port calls worldwide and in the EU.


EU ports

Between them, the top EU ports handle hundreds of thousands of tonnes of goods every year, acting as vital supply gateways into and out of the Member States.

Liquid bulk goods can be anything from petrol, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), liquified natural gas (LNG) and chemicals to things we can drink and use in cooking, like milk, vegetable oils, and juices. Very large tankers can carry huge quantities of liquid bulk goods.

Dry bulk cargo is goods that are transported in large unpacked units (different to containers). Ships that carry this type of cargo are called bulk carriers. These goods can include coal, iron ore, sand, cement, and other products used in construction, as well as things like sugar and salt. 

Containers are the best way to transport smaller goods, like electronics, clothes, and household items. The goods can be loaded and unloaded easily. Containers are measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).


Ships can last for up to 30 years, depending on their type and use, so for shipowners, a new vessel is an important capital investment. Here in the EU, there are about 150 large shipyards, which support around 120 000 jobs.

The EU shipbuilding industry is very varied in terms of the type of vessel constructed:

Fishing Vessels

In total, there are close to 75,000 fishing vessels registered in EU Member States. In the following graph the number of vessels per EU Member State is presented for the years 2017-2021. The graph includes all sizes of fishing vessels.

Recycling is a very important part of the ship lifecycle. Here in the EU, there are stricter regulations on how ships can be recycled, in accordance with good environmental practices.