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Rotterdam Port Feels Effects Of European Debt Crisis


As the debt crisis spreads across Europe, the economy in the region is slowing to a crawl. One place that's starting to feel the impact of the slowdown is the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which is home to the biggest and busiest port in the world outside Asia. Much of what's bought and sold in Europe goes through Rotterdam. NPR's Jim Zarroli visited the area recently and filed this report.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: For a small country, the Netherlands has one of the strongest most vibrant economies in the world. And if you want to get a feel for how dynamic it is, you have to come to Rotterdam.

TIE SCHELLEKENS: This is the beginning of the Rhine and is this is also the beginning of the port of Rotterdam.

ZARROLI: Tie Schellekens, a spokesman for the port, took me on a tour one windy, cold afternoon recently. The port stretches for 25 miles from Rotterdam to the sea down a highway lined with refineries, power plants and container ship terminals. There are enormous platforms on stilts for loading cargo that look like something out of "The War of the Worlds." Through this port comes oil from Russia and the Middle East, iron ore from Brazil, and of course lots of products of all kinds from China. Out of here flows petro-chemicals, machinery and lots of food. One in seven containers heading to the United States is filled with beer.

SCHELLEKENS: Last year we did 430 million tons of goods.

ZARROLI: Four hundred and thirty million tons.

SCHELLEKENS: You can't imagine that kind of amount.

ZARROLI: As we speak, a massive cargo ship the size of a city block appears on the horizon. One of these passes by every five minutes. Schellekens points out some cars parked on the beach. They're filled with ship spotters, people whose hobby it is to track the movements of large cargo vessels. Schellekens says the land where we're standing is in the Dutch tradition reclaimed from the sea.

SCHELLEKENS: At this moment we reclaim even more land because the port is full. We don't have ports to sell anymore, to rent to big firms, and the port is still very popular.

ZARROLI: One reason the port is so popular has to do with its proximity to Germany. The countries have long had an ambivalent relationship. The Nazis bombed Rotterdam flat during World War II. After the war, the city tried to distance itself from Germany by developing its own industries. But in the years since, the German Rhineland has become an export superpower and Rotterdam is its nearest port. The Dutch being a practical people, they deciding to take advantage of the German boom. Schellekens says the Dutch are traders. That's what we do.

SCHELLEKENS: We are a very small country, very dependent on all the other countries, on the 350 million European consumers. And when there are 50 million consumers coming from Germany, it's OK with us. The war was 60 years ago, yet we are all becoming, we are all Europeans.

ZARROLI: The euro was supposed to be an expression of that unity, something that brought Europeans together. But for Rotterdam, being in the eurozone has been both a blessing and a curse. For the first nine months of this year, activity at the port was pretty strong. But business has begun to fall off, and port officials say as Europe slides into recession, Rotterdam will inevitably feel the chill. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli
Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.