Gesine Meissner, Special Envoy of the President of the European Parliament on Maritime Affairs (left) opened the event in the hemicycle in Brussels, 20 March 2019, marking a premiere for the spotlight on the ocean in the EP. The conference was organised jointly by the EP and the European Commission. Until the early hours of the evening a long list of speakers took the floor to attest their commitment to the ocean, its sustainable use, recognition of its major role in stabilising the planet's climate and a vast array of essential goods and services: Euro-deputies, senior officials of the European Commission and national governments, scientists, representatives of young people, civil society, businesses, educators and media people.

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner in charge of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, was the first to take the floor following the introduction. He highlighted that the Commission was pleased to have taken the first important steps to curb the plastic plague by banning single-use plastic and invest in recycling and that 59 fish stocks had improved status compared to 9 to 12 years ago. He said he was proud about the allocation of 600 mio. EUR in support of sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) in developing countries, safety at sea and bilateral partnership agreements with such countries as China and Canada.  

Carlos Moedas, Commissioner in charge of Research, Science and Innovation talked about the opportunities to improve public health through research, but also the huge challenge to protect the ocean. He invited the audience to take inspiration from the Dutch boy (Boyan Slat) who drew attention of a global audience to the plastic pollution of the ocean by communicating youthfully and disregarding all obstacles.

That spirit in combination with good science could allow to bring about the major transformation of our economic systems that needed to happen in the near future and must include a spotlight on the ocean. 

A young lady and a lad from Belgium echoed the Friday for Future student marches and demands for immediate strong action to protect the climate and the ocean by asking for enforcement of existing fisheries laws so as to stop overfishing, stop the plastic deluge and adopt policy change in favour of social, environmental and fiscal justice. Public funding should accelerate transitions to sustainable development, such as implementing the interconnected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN in 2015.

They challenged the politicians and captains of industry to demonstrate more courage in order to accelerate action in this direction. Such voicing of youths is becoming more frequent as a bow towards growing youth protests, but unfortunately, that does not mean for sure that the political buffs will indeed take them seriously. It seems more sustained protests are necessary to go beyond the token nodding, while carrying on with business as usual.

Among the many speakers in successive sessions, João Aguiar Machado, Director General of MARE, hoped that more young people would make it into the next legislature during the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament on 26 May 2019. That might help establish a special Oceans Committee in the new EP to work for better ocean governance.

He suggested the main emphasis should be on enforcing existing legislation and better coordination and cooperation between different policies, countries and regions. In referring to the first policy paper on oceans by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and several European Commissioners he reported that four years later there was some progress e.g. through an agreement preventing fishing in the central Arctic for the next 16 years and increase efforts to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. He rightly finished his statement remarking that credibility in Europe and the world required putting the own European house in order.

The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, emphasised the importance of the Paris Accord for the Climate and the urgency of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. He called attention to the efforts Europe had made to bring them about and was working in support of implementation.

The efforts to ban single-use plastic and recycle a lot more plastic, if properly implemented, would be equivalent to removing one million cars from the streets.

He proclaimed that he was proud to host the event and that a proposal was on the table for the new mid-term planning 2021 to 2027 to allocate 120 bio EUR to the future ocean economy and appealed to European Member States to play their part.

Several speakers also advocated to set aside a seizable chunk of research funding for the ocean in the forthcoming Research Framework Programme Horizon Europe (2021-2027).

Despite the duration of the event, there was a sense of fresh energy towards a new departure. That's a huge opportunity. Europe has certainly made some progress in terms of legislation and contributions to international processes.

But Europe also faces internal opposition to implementing its commitment and the lack of enforcement by European Member States of key parts of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy are a case in point, not to mention resistance against accelerated change over to renewables and particularly stopping climate killer coal. So, all the good intentions expressed during this important event will only become reality if serious action ensues that puts blue justice and the building of sustainable living with the ocean as part of implementing the SDGs at its very heart. Rather than reiterating only the failures, going full steam for the SDGs with an enabling policy environment could be the much needed game changers. The science is on the side of the winners forging ahead with reason.

The live video of the High-Level Conference can be seen here. The programme can be downloaded here.