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14-05-2024 11:33

Welcome remarks by the Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Ms Marilena Raouna, at the ESDC course on “The Challenges of securing maritime areas for the European Union: a focus on the Eastern Mediterranean region”, at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre

It is with great pleasure that I join you today and I am delighted for the opportunity to address this pertinent and timely three-day course on a crucially important issue, namely “The challenges of securing maritime areas for the European Union (EU) with a focus on the Eastern Mediterranean region”.

Prior to diving into the theme at hand, I wish to thank the Cyprus Security & Defence Academy (CSDA) and the French Institute for Advanced Studies in National Defence (IHEDN) for organising this course, as well as the European Security and Defence College (ESDC) for having the event under its auspices. I also wish to extend a heartfelt thank you to LT Col Benoit Durieux, Lt Col Symeon Zambas and Mr Fergal O’Regan LTC.

The course offers an invaluable opportunity for exchanging views and sharing of information amongst experts and professionals from 10 EU member states on the multifaceted subject matter of maritime security. We can all recognise, now perhaps more than ever, that maritime security is a core component of the EU’s strategic autonomy, precisely because it is vital to the strategic interests, security and the prosperity of the EU and its citizens. Our seas are vital from a security point of view, from an economic point of view, from an environmental point of view, and we need to protect them, particularly now.

It is also appropriate that this important course takes place in Cyprus – the EU’s southeastern most corner, lying at the heart of a region that is crucial for the world and the EU. This is the EU’s neighbourhood and it is a crucial one. Cyprus stands as the EU’s lighthouse in the Eastern Mediterranean, as a pillar of stability, reliability and security. An EU member state with historically excellent relations with its neighbours. Relations that are based on trust, mutual understanding and a shared respect for international law, including law of the sea. A bridge between the region and its neighbours and the EU. In the last decade, leaps of progress have been achieved in what I like to call microlateralism in the region, including through the trilateral cooperation mechanisms with Egypt, Jordan, Israel, that cover an array of fields, including maritime issues. Some formations include other EU member states, such as France, for example, in the case of the bilateral with Egypt on issues of security.

Cyprus has demonstrated its reliability time and time again, often times, regrettably, in the most tragic circumstances; recently twice with the evacuation from Sudan and the evacuation as a result of the Israel-Hamas war, together with the operationalisation of the Amalthea Cyprus maritime corridor, which has created an international humanitarian alliance. The Amalthea initiative is here to stay and we will be scaling up.

The Government has been working closely on regional security, including maritime security, with regional and international strategic partners, the USA being one of them. I wish to take this opportunity to make a special reference to the Cyprus Centre for Land Open Seas and Port Security (the so-called CYCLOPS center), which has been established here in Larnaka in cooperation with the Government of the United States. The Centre forms a model of regional cooperation, serving Cyprus and the broader region in addressing related challenges, including maritime security and cybersecurity.

As you are well aware, the maritime sector faces many challenges and security has long been one of them. Within the current geopolitical environment, challenges related to the maritime sector have become increasingly complex.

At the same time, the maritime sector holds great importance for the EU, serving as a backbone of its economy, trade and transportation. Approximately 90% of the EU’s external freight trade is seaborne, whereas 40% of world fleet is controlled by EU shipowners. The maritime transport sector links the EU with global markets and it is estimated to contribute around €150 billion to EU’s annual GDP. As an island country with a strong maritime tradition, Cyprus has steadily developed into a world-class maritime centre. The maritime sector is, today, one of the main drivers of Cyprus’ economic growth. An efficient and integrated maritime hub, Cyprus has the third largest merchant fleet in Europe and the 11th largest in the world, and is among the largest ship-management centres in the world.

Protecting our seas and the ecosystems is essential for the long-term viability of the maritime sector, which inevitably relies on stable and predictable ocean and sea conditions for safe navigation and efficient maritime operations. The EU approach for a sustainable blue economy serves to this end, as it aims to harness the economic potential of the seas and oceans while minimising any negative environmental impacts and ensuring the development and responsible use of resources and ecosystems.

The Government of Cyprus and President Christodoulides have long advocated, even before the latest developments that have put maritime security on the forefront, the vital importance of the maritime sector and the need for the EU to work more effectively towards enhancing its maritime competitiveness and improve its sustainability potential in the global market.

In the last couple of years, it is Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine with its repercussions on international shipping routes and more recently Houthis’ attacks against vessels in the Red Sea that have brought maritime security under the international spotlight, causing disruptions in freedom of navigation and maritime trade, while exacerbating rising shipping costs and inflation rates, with significant ripple effects on Europe’s supply chain and overall economic security.

As an EU member state that is at the same time an integral part of the Eastern Mediterranean, we are deeply concerned by developments in our region; a region that is literally at the doorstep of the EU and where any escalation and spillover impact the security and stability of the EU itself.

The regional turmoil has equally exacerbated critical maritime challenges, such as irregular migration and organised crime, including smuggling of migrants and human trafficking, with severe social, economic, demographic and political repercussions, in particular for the front-line EU member states, such as Cyprus.

The recent visits of President Christodoulides, together with the President of the European Commission, to Egypt and Lebanon form part of our collective efforts to have the EU engage more with the region and approach the countries of the region as true partners, through a holistic approach that serves the interests of the region, the EU and our partners.

At the same time, the Eastern Mediterranean region is not unfamiliar with maritime challenges stemming, inter alia, from violations of sovereignty and sovereign, competition for natural resources and other revisionist actions that run unequivocally contrary to international law, and in particular the UNCLOS. The EU has stood firmly on the side of international law, including UNCLOS, safeguarding the sovereignty and sovereign rights of its member states.

The question at hand, and one that you will all tackle in the various sessions today – from hybrid threats to blue economy, to the EU’s strategic compass – is how do we – and I say we, because I believe that all of the pressing challenges we face at the EU and global level require collective international response – then tackle these challenges, how does the EU lead the way in building resilience, taking effective actions?

Undoubtedly, the current maritime situation has put the spotlight, as I mentioned earlier, on promoting the EU’s strategic autonomy. Part of this is the EU’s capacity to effectively respond to maritime security threats in order to protect the interests of its citizens, its economy, its values, and to be able to act as a global maritime security provider, in close cooperation with like-minded regional and international actors.

The recently revised EU Maritime Security Strategy aims to provide the EU with a wide range of effective tools to address evolving security challenges with the appropriate framework that will enable EU to protect its interests at sea. The strategy is intended to be realised through numerous actions that provide for increased EU activities at sea, enhanced partnerships with likeminded countries and international organisations, actions to improve EU’s collective resilience and preparedness, and the development of EU’s capabilities in the field of maritime security.

In light of recent developments and under its Common Security and Defence Policy, the EU has also launched (19 February 2024) ASPIDES, the first EU mission operating in a very demanding environment. EUNAVFOR ASPIDES contributes to safeguarding maritime security, especially for merchant and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Cyprus has joined the EU’s efforts to achieve a safe, secure and efficient maritime transport and supports the operation with the secondment of two military staff in its headquarters in Greece.

The increasingly complex nature of security issues requires coordinated international efforts. The EU can, and must be, at the forefront of these efforts and Cyprus will remain a strong voice on this issue, regionally and in Brussels. Your active participation in this course signifies your countries’ commitment and our collective determination to these efforts, always through cooperation and respect of international law. I am certain that these three days will be fruitful for you and with an added value as to future discussions on enhancing the rules-based international order at sea.

I look forward to receiving your stock taking and main deliverables from the event, particularly since, in our work with our Trio partners – Poland and Denmark for the Trio programme – we are focusing also on issues of security and Cyprus, in this context, has raised maritime security.