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Thank you very much, Mr Minister [for Foreign Affairs of the Maldives, Abdulla Shahid]. It is a pleasure for me to be here for an official visit from the European Union institutions to the Maldives – as you mentioned, the first of this kind, which signals the state of our partnership, and the fact that in these months we have turned the page and started a new chapter in our partnership.
I would like to thank you Mr Minister, for your very warm welcome today and for the excellent discussions the we have had. We started our excellent discussions during your visit to Brussels in June and I also had excellent meetings earlier today with the President [of the Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih], yourself [Foreign Minister of the Maldives, Abdulla Shahid], the Minister of National Defence and Security [of the Maldives, Mariya Ahmed Didi], and just now I had the special honour of addressing the Parliament at the invitation of the Speaker [of the People’s Majlis, Mohamed Nasheed].
In all of my meetings there has been a common thread: how to further strengthen, how to deepen our bilateral relations for the benefit of our citizens, both in Europe and in the Maldives, and also how to address together regional and global issues on which we share the same concerns or the same perspectives.
My visit reflects the intensification of our relations, especially since the Maldives renewed its commitment to consolidate democracy. We attach enormous importance to your commitment to ensure good governance and to strengthen the rule of law following the election in September last year.
The European Union reacted to these positive developments last June by lifting the framework for restrictive measures against the Maldives that we had introduced the previous year. Today, with this visit, I want to reconfirm the opening of a new chapter in our relationship.
The European Union fully supports further strengthening the Maldives as an inclusive, resilient democracy with independent institutions. We know that the journey is not easy; we know that there might be sometimes setbacks. But as the European Union you can count on our full commitment to accompanying you and providing the assistance you require to move forward.
We commend the efforts underway to step up and coordinate the prevention of radicalisation and work on counterterrorism. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were a cruel reminder for us all that terrorism can strike anywhere and the European Union is ready to strengthen cooperation in this area. I am pleased to announce that we will provide €2.5 million in support of the work that the Maldivian government is doing in the field of security and counterterrorism.
Another area where the European Union and the Maldives are partners for change is on climate action. We live in times where anything less than full commitment, full dedication, and immediate action, will have terrible consequences. The very existence of this beautiful country, as is the case for several parts of Europe, is threatened by climate change and the impact it has on the sea level.
As the European Union, we have committed to cutting our emissions by 40% by 2030 and we are leading the way when it comes to transforming our own economies into highly energy efficient and low carbon ones that can create jobs and strengthen our competitiveness.
To support the Maldives in their own work in this field, we signed, as the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] mentioned, a €5 million agreement in June, and the European Investment Bank signed a €45 million loan to assist renewable energy projects just a few weeks ago.
Sustainable modernisation and development, including to mitigate the impact of climate change, is at the heart of our work to better connect Europe and Asia. This can be done through transport links, energy networks, digital networks, but also through people-to-people connections. We would like to work more closely with the Maldives on this initiative, to identify areas where we can work together to develop our bilateral connections, all the time considering the environmental, economic, social and fiscal sustainability of such projects, which we have found in Europe to be a winning formula.
We also discussed today the Government's strong anti-corruption and good governance agenda, to which the European Union has already been providing ongoing support. But we have also discussed the possibility of doing more together in this field.
We also want to further strengthen economic relations with the Maldives, as the [Foreign] Minister [of the Maldives, Abdulla Shahid] mentioned, and I am pleased that a Business Roundtable will be organised in the coming months to explore further avenues for enhancing trade and investment between the European Union and the Maldives.
Finally, we share a joint commitment, and I believe a joint interest, to uphold the rules-based international order, which benefits unhindered trade, peace and security, not least in the Indian Ocean. I believe we share the same approach of valuing cooperative relationships regionally, globally and bilaterally.
I would like to conclude by thanking the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] and the President [Mohamed Solih] once again for this invitation and for the very constructive discussions that we have had today, which I believe will believe will lead the way to even deeper and stronger cooperation between the Maldives and the European Union.
Thank you very much.
Questions and answers:
Q: The Maldives has been asking the EU for special tarrifs for fisheries products. How long will this discussion take and when will we see a result?
A: As the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] mentioned, I said a few words on this while I had the honour of addressing the Parliament earlier today. This is an issue the Minister first and foremost, but also other authorities, starting from the President [Mohammed Solih] and other Ministers, have raised with me constantly. So I want first and foremost to tell the Maldivian people that their representatives are making the point very clear to us. We know that this is a top priority for the people of the Maldives and for the government of the Maldives. As the Maldives has now graduated to a different status when it comes to income, we will have to find other ways of supporting the economy of the Maldives, which is something we want to do. The European Union, in this context, applies the rules and regulations of the WTO [World Trade Organisation]. We are strong believers in the multilateral institutions, including the WTO and we would never unilaterally change or challenge these rules. We have discussed with the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] and with the President [Mohammed Solih] some ideas on which we and the next European Commission could possibly work in the future, to find ways to address the issue of fisheries in a way that could be satisfactory for the Maldives. As I said in the Parliament, I cannot commit to a result and I cannot commit to a timing, but I said that we will discuss some ideas, including the possibility of deciding or considering the launch of negotiations for a free trade agreement that could address this issue in the future. So again, I do not want to raise expectations that then would be difficult to manage, but what I can promise is that going back to Brussels I will discuss this with my colleagues and will put the issue on the agenda for the next Commission and also for our Member States to consider this as an avenue for resolving this issue that, as I said, we know very well is a top priority for the Maldives. So, no promise that we will solve it, but I promise we will address it and try to do our best to solve it.
Q: All Maldivians have to travel to Sri Lanka to get the Schengen Visa, which is a huge burden. We have a lot of students and also vacationers going to Europe. So when can we see any results regarding the easing of this burden?
A: I would say this is the number two issue that your authorities and your government constantly raise with us. So also in this respect, I can reassure the citizens of the Maldives that you are well represented. We know very well that the fact that no consular presence here in the Maldives of our Member States is creating difficulties for the citizens of the Maldives to get a visa to travel to EU Member States. I am encouraging Member States to find alternative solutions that can make it easier for the citizens of the Maldives to obtain a visa without travelling far. This is a decision for the Member States of the European Union to take, but we are encouraging them to do that and to explore some possible ah-hoc solutions that could facilitate the issuing of a visa without having to travel far.
Having said that, I know that the ultimate objective is to have a visa-free regime for the citizens of the Maldives. Currently, there is no plan for the current European Commission to review the visa list. We have three months of this Commission mandate remaining, so in these next three months this review will not happen. The next Commission taking office as of 1 November will most probably in its term proceed to a review of the list of countries that are exempted from the visa regime to enter the European Union. So the question will have to be put to the next Commission I am afraid. What we discussed with the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] and also with the President [Mohammed Solih] is that in the meantime we can work on ways to facilitate as much as possible consular presence or alternative ad-hoch measures that Member States of the European Union can take to make sure that citizens of the Maldives do not have to travel far to get a visa. And also I know that the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] had discussions during his visit to Brussels in June with my colleagues from the department of the Commission that is dealing with home affairs, so that the technical preparations for the Maldives to be ready for that decision can be taken in these years. Then when the decision of the European Union to review the list of countries that have visa free policies and the political decision on the European Union side will be taken, then the Maldives will be ready for that. So again, in this case the responsibility is on our side to open this window of reviewing the list of countries. This is not the case now; it is going to be the case in the coming years and I am sure that by then the Maldives will do also the necessary advocacy work to make sure that when the decision on reviewing the list will be taken, the Maldives will be part of the countries benefiting from that. But I want to tell you very clearly, a decision on not reviewing the status for the visa-free regimes has nothing to do with the Maldives specifically. We are not taking that decision on any other country at this moment. So it is a policy that the European Union Member States have decided to have now in this specific moment not to change the visa policy with any of the countries around the world. So we know that this is your aspiration. You know that in principle we do not have objections to that. When the time will come, the discussions will take place.
Q: How would you describe the way in which relations between the Maldives and other countries, including the European Union, have changed since the new government took office in November?
A: Positive. The Maldives and the European Union as such have now gone to a level of partnership that was not there before. So I can say we have opened a new chapter of increased partnership, and to my knowledge relations also bilaterally between the Maldives and individual Member States are good. I do not see problems arising. I was saying that in terms of its content, this visit is probably one of the most positive and easy of my mandate, because I bring a positive message, I receive encouraging messages and we plan for future cooperation to be strengthened. So we do not have negative files on our desk and this is quite unique in the times of today, so I am also grateful for that. We often focus on conflicts and crises, but whenever we see positive developments we also have the responsibility and the duty to support them, and this is definitely one case of that kind. So - all good.
Q: In the Maldives, we have very little to export other than fish. The rest is services that we provide to Europeans here and this is only a fraction of the European Community. How much possibility is there to discuss about giving the Maldives an opportunity to open European markets for Maldivian fish?
A: First of all, I would not say that you have little to export. Obviously, in global terms, the size of your country and of your economy is relative, but in preparing this visit I was looking at the numbers of our trade and in fact the European Union is the Maldives' main export destination. The European Union already today absorbs over 88% of all Maldivian exports in the world. So the trade we have corresponds more or less to more than €80 million per year, which is a quite significant number in absolute terms. So I would not diminish the relevance of the trade we already have today, also because these trends are increasing. In the last year, trade between us increased by 7% compared to the previous year. So the trend is positive.
I know that there is an issue about fisheries. This is linked to, as I mentioned, to the respect of WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules. The European Union cannot unilaterally grant a preferential tariff to the Maldives. The way that, as I mentioned, the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] and I and the President [Mohammed Solih] and I discussed today, would be to consider both on the Maldivian side and on the European Union's side to take the decision to start negotiations for a free trade agreement between the Maldives and the European Union. This is an avenue that we can explore. That would create the conditions for this issue to be solved.
When it comes to our trade policies, let me tell you: they are the most transparent of the world. Public acts are there. Our parliament, which also has public documents, has access to everything. The point is that we are not in negotiations over trade agreements. We have not even yet discussed to decide to enter bilateral negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement bilaterally. I personally think that this would be a good idea. The changes in the Maldives are quite recent. We lifted, as I mentioned, our framework for the restrictive measures just less than two months ago. Before that, it was definitely difficult to imagine that we would have negotiated a Free Trade Agreement while having restrictive measures in place. You see the illogic nexus between these two things. Now that a new page has been turned, I personally believe that it could be a possibility to explore the beginning of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement. But this requires, first of all, political will on both sides, a decision to be taken by both sides, and, once the decision might be taken on both sides to start negotiations, then negotiations could, I believe, conclude even quite rapidly given the good state of relations and the good state of trade that we have among us. But what I want to stress is that in the meantime, it would be important, as the Minister [Abdulla Shahid] and I discussed today, to explore all other possible avenues to increase trade among us and to increase investments among us without waiting for these patterns to be followed. I believe we have a lot of potential that we can explore. And we are determined with this Business Roundtable to move this agenda forward already from now.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-176748