The Malta Independent 10 December 2019, Tuesday

A wave of ocean success for the European Union

Karmenu Vella Monday, 10 June 2019, 09:23 Last update: about 7 months ago

Saturday (8th June) was World Ocean Day. For us in Malta the ocean is always present. In stories, in work, in sound and sight.  It is as constant as the tide in the ebb and flow of our lives and our culture.

For the European Union I am proud to say that ocean awareness is becoming ever-present too. When I arrived in the European Commission, its President Jean Claude Juncker tasked me with a new challenge. That was to combine the ‘green’ and ‘blue’ policies of the European Union. By that, I mean that he had the foresight to see that environmental policy and maritime policy belong together. Earth is called the blue planet for a reason. 70% of its surface is water. So, President Juncker reasoned, we would not be making progress unless the world leading green polices of the EU can be applied to the blue. That was the path to a sustainable future.

My challenge was to build a global stage for our ocean agenda. So how have we done? Well let’s start with an area in which we all have a role to play. That is the growing challenge posed by plastic pollution. Our unprecedented Europe-wide strategy on plastics, which will notably ensure that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, has gained global attention. To address the growing volume of harmful plastic in our seas and oceans and respond to citizens’ concerns, we adopted new EU-wide rules to reduce marine litter coming from the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on European beaches, as well as abandoned fishing gear, including by banning some of them, where suitable alternatives already exist. Together these constitute 70% of all marine litter. This policy embodies our green into blue approach.

I have also invested personally in galvanizing international action on ocean governance and action. Perhaps the highpoint was in 2017. With First Vice President Frans Timmermans and High Representative Federica Mogherini, we hosted the Our Ocean’ Conference right here in Malta. All in the European Commission appreciated the help and promotion that Prime Minister Muscat gave to this event. The result of that Conference? Over 400 pledges from governments, companies and foundations around the world. The total? Over 7 billion euros pledged to ocean protection and sustainable development. And a lot of these pledges have in the meanwhile been implemented.

We have launched an ambitious Ocean Governance policy – the first of its kind in the world. This ambitious agenda for safe, secure, clean and sustainably managed oceans has since been a source of inspiration for other global actors worldwide. And we are delivering on its 50 actions. We have advocated for a specific ocean’s goal, which was finally included in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.At the UN we are pushing for a legally binding instrument to protect biodiversity in the high seas.

We also negotiated an Agreement to ban commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea, to protect its very fragile eco-system.

We have also been successful in our continued fight against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, strengthening our partners' policies to fight and deter IUU fishing and to improve compliance with international law of the sea. This policy has allowed us to ensure that products entering the EU market do not come from IUU fisheries. In short, we are using our commercial influence to build better global standards. This helps fish stocks and it helps make sure that fishers work under safer and fairer conditions, also outside the EU.

Our Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements have been another effective tool through which we were able to promote our sustainability principles and ensure better governance of our partner countries' fisheries while providing key fishing opportunities outside EU waters for our fishers. During this mandate, we have concluded or renewed several agreements in Western Africa, the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. We have also signed a unique ocean partnership with China, with clear commitments to protect the marine environment, tackle climate change, cooperate to combat illegal fishing and promote a sustainable blue economy.

During my mandate, I have launched several EU initiatives to develop the blue economy, which provides more than 4 million jobs with a high potential for more employment creation.   We have increased financing opportunities for innovative entrepreneurs in the Blue Economy through the preparation of a Blue Economy Investment Platform. For example, by 2017, the Atlantic action plan had spurred over 1200 new maritime projects and nearly 6 billion euro of investments. The recently set-up Blue Bioeconomy Forum will help the blue biotechnology sector to scale up production and move from innovation to commercialisation.

We have built a unique database of marine data and complete seabed maps of European waters. We have created a unique landscape of Marine Spatial Plans in all European seas, making Europe the global leader in the sustainable use of the sea space.

We set up the Ocean Energy Forum, which produced an industry-led roadmap for the development of this sector, which we hope will lead to an increasing number of tidal and wave energy projects deployed in EU waters.

We have built a network of European coastguards for more safety and security and have further developed systems for information sharing in the maritime environment.

All of these achievements were done because the oceans were prioritised. The result is that the world looks to the EU and sees ocean leadership. Of course, there are many challenges that lay ahead. The life in and on our ocean must be protected. The plastic already polluting our seas must be drained, and the awesome power of this blue giant must be harnessed. The role of the oceans in addressing the impact of climate change needs to be better recognised. But all of these challenges are just that little bit closer and that little bit more achievable. For that, I am truly thankful to the dedication of those with whom I’ve worked over the course of this mandate, in Malta, in the rest of the EU and beyond.

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