Opening Address of the Forum of the Sea-Bizerte

His Excellency, the Governor,

His Worship, the Mayor,

Honourable Ministers,

Representatives of the European Union and the Union for the Mediterranean,

Dear Olivier, Dear Rym, Dear Mehdi

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

 

My remarks this morning will be devoted to addressing the major issues that concern the friends of the sea and oceans, of which our forum has the vocation to translate into action, here and now, in Tunisia. Between the great ideas that we all have about what must be done, and the reality of everyday life, there is still a great gap that we must strive to close.

I will begin by situating a number of current, major challenges of marine spaces in order to outline the frameworks and action plans in progress to address them, stressing in particular the method adopted in Tunisia to prepare for this forum, which is exceptionally promising.

These major issues, of which I will say a word, are familiar to me from a unique standpoint spanning over many years, having been a naval officer in my youth. It is since then that I picked up the ‘marine space virus’, thereafter going on to be European Commissioner, the Director General of the WTO, and a member of the Global Commission of Oceans, which gave birth to objective 14 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, goals that will guide all international action between now and 2030. This is of course alongside my presidency of this Oceans mission recently created in Brussels, which will incite major action of the European Union in the coming decade with specific attention to the fields of research and innovation. Likewise, it is with a specific point of view as President of the Paris Peace Forum that I address you today, a forum which, on November 12 and 13, will devote a part of its work to these issues as it did in 2018.

 

Today I will discuss four major global issues: the environment, the economy, geopolitics and science.

  • The environment, because we are experiencing an oceanic environmental tragedy;
  • The economy, because we are witnessing the impasse of an unsustainable blue economy;
  • Geopolitics, because it remains an essential dimension of maritime space;
  • Science, because so much remains to be known about what is happening in our marine systems.

The environment: It is now clear that our marine ecosystems are under serious threat; global warming, biodiversity degradation, acidification, pollution, outbreaks, and rising sea levels are all progressing rapidly, leading to earth’s slow death. The ocean, earth’s lung, is the most essential for life on this planet, if only because it absorbs between a quarter and a third of carbon dioxide emissions. That said, I will not insist on this point: the IPCC’s Special report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) will be made public in Monaco in the coming days and will strongly remind us of the aforementioned sentiments.

The economy: the sea is the seventh-largest economy on the planet and as such, should be in the G7 or G20, albeit as a patient. The ocean in sick because we humans take too much from it, and dump too much back into it. How much? We don’t know for certain, but what’s sure is that in both cases, it’s too much. This leads to essential food challenges with the depletion of fishery resources, the excessive exploitation of certain sea beds, and coastal degradation often caused by tourism, which accounts for about 10% of the world economy. We know the path we must take to ensure the blue economy is a circular one. I don’t think it will come as a shock to anyone by saying we’re a long way away from achieving this.

 

Geopolitics: because it is a dimension that has a considerable influence over major international players’ policies. Control over the seas has always been a powerful tool, leading to a deep-seated aspiration to secure maritime flows as needed. This is still the case today. One must simply observe how China is developing its maritime presence, its enormous infrastructure projects for the famous re-creation of the Silk Roads, as well as its investment in Sri Lanka’s Colombo major port which will serve as China’s penetration point in the world’s economic circuits. Look at the dizzying speed at which China is increasing its number of vessels, all of which carry its flag on seas around the world. This situation will be exacerbated considering that within a century, three-quarters of the world’s largest cities, hosting two-thirds of the world’s ten billion people, will be port cities, undoubtedly changing maritime geopolitics.

Last but not least, science: first of all, because many physical, chemical, biological and geological phenomena of earth’s immense marine universe are still unknown to humans. Secondly, because our seas and oceans hold, as we now know, a vast potential for new products and technologies that have only just begun to be exploited. Whether we envision seaweed as a replacement for our meat intake, with the positive effects that this would have for climate change, or whether we remind ourselves of all that is taking place in the field of cosmetics, there are tremendous opportunities that present themselves in this domain. This goes without mentioning the promising future of biomimetics, which is another novel frontier to explore.

Thus, these issues are familiar to us, or are otherwise sensed. What remains is to draw the necessary conclusions to rectify the situation, which is still possible for a limited amount of time.

Admittedly, at the global, regional or local level, action plans to deal with these major issues are numerous; meetings are constant; declarations are flourishing; but action is long overdue.

From my global observation post, a few actions-in-motion stand out. This is the case in three areas:

– The protection of the oceans and seas, with the extension of marine protected areas. We must be around a little more than 10% of the total, whereas the target in a few years’ time would be more towards 30% – nevertheless, it is progress.

– Overfishing, in which a number of controls are emerging.

– Plastics and waste, and those of us who saw the film last night from which we emerged completely stunned, know that because public opinion has begun to take this reality into account, actions are under way.

 

Given the enormity of the issues mentioned, one could say that this is a rather short list. But there are other activities in the making, particularly within the framework of the United Nations with this objective in mind such as goal 14, which consists of approximately ten targets. This includes ongoing conversations and negotiations to develop the governance of the high seas. UNESCO is extending its activity to include a number of aquatic and underwater heritage sites. Last week, the World Tourism Organisation, of which I chair the Ethics Committee, adopted a treaty on the ethics of tourism, which deals in particular with the environmental and maritime impact of tourist activities. There are negotiations at the World Trade Organization on disciplinary action for overfishing; the World Bank has gradually redirected infrastructure financing onto a path more compatible with the survival of aquatic species; and the G7 regularly deals with the oceans, from coral reef initiatives, to this Canadian initiative of forming an alliance for ocean resilience.

At the regional level, particularly in the Euro-Mediterranean area, things are a little more specific, a little more concrete thanks to the commitment of the Union for the Mediterranean, the Summit of the two shores, and in particular, the European Union which as you know is strongly invested in the field that brings us together today. If the announcements of Mrs. Von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission during her inauguration speech to the European Parliament are earnest, the EU is expected to be ever more present in the coming years.  Here in Bizerte, we know about the lake clean-up flagship project. There are sanitation movements in Tunisia that are supported and financed by the POLMED programme. There are marine areas emerging north of the Kuriat Islands, these along with many other cooperation programmes.

Finally, and evidently where I will end off is at the local level with all the initiatives that bring us together today in Bizerte and that take new paths afresh. They are multi-stakeholders, led by local authorities, companies, associations, non-governmental organisations, individuals who complement and sometimes replace the often-timid action of public authorities. They are based on specific projects, the very purpose of  “amwaj”, “the wave” which accompanied the blue season and valiantly prepared our Bizerte forum which will reward the best projects of all those who want to patch up the damages, of which there remain quite a few, and who seek financial support, political assistance or media visibility.

I firmly believe in this formula, that of which we used here and which is also, at the global level, that of the Paris Peace Forum: actors for solutions, laboratories where there is often a spirit of enterprise, a spirit of cooperation, and a will to achieve concrete results; a spirit of faith that is somewhat absent from State and diplomatic structures. I say this in hopes that neither the ministers nor the diplomats present – albeit many of excellence in this room and panel – will resent this rather biting formula.

I will conclude this introductory statement of our work by recalling a formula that struck me and was used by the President of Chile, whom I accompanied to Antarctica last January as part of a coalition called Antarctica 2020, its objective being to surround Antarctica with marine protected areas to avoid the depletion of marine resources caused by melting ice and snow. Of course, I recognize that this is not the primary concern here in Bizerte, but as you know, the oceans, the seas, the waters – salty or fresh – are all part of the same system, as scientists say. This man, who was strongly committed to the survival of marine environments, said at the time, and I quote: “With regard to the sea and oceans, we are the first generation to understand the disaster that awaits us, and we are the last to be able to prevent it”.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends; in one strong sentence, what Sebastian Pinera said that day a long way away from where we are gathered, is that time is running out.

That is why I hope, on behalf of all the organizers to whom I offer thanks once again for their efforts, that Tunisia will become a pioneer in this endeavour for regeneration and the sensible enhancement of marine ecosystems, which I have witnessed form a large part of Tunisia’s identity, its distinctiveness, its history, its culture, and, quite simply, its warmth and charm.

Thank you for your attention.