NATO Urged To Bolster Merchant Navies As Global Tensions Rise


  • Maritime unions representing member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are calling for a renewed focus on merchant navies.
  • In a joint statement released on July 9, 2024, the unions emphasized the critical role these fleets play in national security and economic resilience, particularly in the face of growing geopolitical tensions.

The statement highlights concerns over a worrying trend – the decline in qualified merchant seafarers and the number of national-flagged vessels within NATO member states. This decline coincides with a period of rising geopolitical tensions, including the war in Ukraine and competition for control of strategic sea lanes. The unions cite a recent study by Professor Geoffrey Till, former Head of Defence Studies at King’s College London. Professor Till underscores the vital link between “a healthy merchant marine and secure sea lines of communication” and national security.

A Global Problem: Reliance on Foreign-Flagged Ships

The decline of merchant navies is not a problem limited to a single nation. The statement highlights the growing reliance on foreign-flagged vessels in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and others with traditionally strong maritime sectors. This dependence, coupled with a shortage of qualified personnel, is seen as a significant vulnerability.

A Call to Action: Investing in Merchant Navies

The unions urge NATO member states to seize the opportunity of the alliance’s 75th anniversary to commit to significant investments in their merchant navies. They advocate for a collaborative effort among member states to:

  • Increase the Number of Qualified Seafarers: Investment in training programs is crucial to ensure a steady stream of qualified personnel to operate merchant vessels.
  • Expand National Fleets: Encouraging the growth of national-flagged merchant fleets is essential for reducing reliance on foreign vessels.
  • Eliminate Incentives for Flags of Convenience: Addressing the economic factors that make it attractive to register ships under flags of convenience is necessary to strengthen national fleets.
  • Combat Exploitation of Foreign Crews: Ensuring fair treatment and working conditions for all seafarers is a critical aspect of building a robust and sustainable merchant marine.

The statement concludes by emphasizing the critical role merchant navies play in bolstering national security and economic resilience, particularly during times of crisis.


The joint statement is signed by maritime unions from Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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Source: Nautilus