The Diplomat Q&A: EU and Seychelles share real concern for ocean governance
Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Seychelles, Vincent Degert, was accredited in October 2019. (EU Embassy)
(Seychelles News Agency) - The European Union (EU) and Seychelles have strong, longstanding diplomatic relations, especially as Seychelles has close historical ties to the EU member state France, given the island nation was first a French colony in the 1700s and its cultural and linguistic roots form part of the Creole nation today, which also has African, Chinese and Indian ancestry.
In modern times, the EU has become one of Seychelles' main partners in the fields of political, economic and trade as well as development cooperation. This also includes cooperation in maritime security, such as the fight against piracy, illegal drugs and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and the two partners share important trade agreements particularly in the fisheries sector.
The EU divides its relations with Seychelles into several categories; political, economic and trade, fisheries, environmental protection and climate trade, as well as promoting human rights, gender equality and good governance, according to the EU's official website.
In October 2019, the Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Seychelles, Vincent Degert, was accredited and since then has witnessed important changes taking place in the island nation as well as the impact of COVID-19.
Degert is making his last official visit to the island nation as he completes his mission in Seychelles and Mauritius and shares his thoughts with SNA on the events that took place during his mandate.
SNA: Ambassador Vincent Degert, you will be completing your mandate as the European Union Ambassador to Seychelles and Mauritius in July, what do you believe have been the most important points of progress in EU-Seychelles relations since 2019, when you were accredited?
VD: Well, let me say from the outset that the EU and Seychelles have built solid diplomatic, political and economic ties based on trust and shared values. We remain Seychelles' main trade partner, the main provider of foreign direct investment and tourists.
Despite the challenges that have marked my mandate, first, the coronavirus pandemic and then the consequences of the aggression of Ukraine by Russia, these four years have allowed us to achieve a number of key results.
In October 2021, the EU removed Seychelles from its official list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions in recognition of Seychelles' commitment to promoting tax good governance. Thanks to our solid relations, we have also been able to secure a grant of €2 million for the period 2021-2027, something that would not normally be possible as Seychelles has a high-income country status.
We have also strengthened our cooperation in the area of sustainable fisheries with the successful negotiation of a new Fisheries Agreement, the inauguration of several facilities for artisanal fishers as well as the successful organisation of the first BlueInvest event outside Europe, BlueInvest Africa that Seychelles hosted in September 2022.
We have also strengthened our cooperation in maritime security, an area where the EU and Seychelles clearly have a common interest, notably to address the scourge of drug trafficking in the context of the EUNAVFOR Operation Atalanta broadened mandate.
Finally, the EU and Seychelles, together with four other countries in Eastern Africa, have launched negotiations for a renewed trade agreement, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). The implementation of the current EPA has been accompanied by very significant support to improve the ease of doing business through digitalisation and diversify the economy - notably in aquaculture - an even more important objective as highlighted by the supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SNA: What is your favourite memory of Seychelles that has marked your term as ambassador?
VD: Without any hesitation, the dive with the members of OceanCleanup Project Seychelles during our first EUBeachCleanup action in Seychelles in October 2021. I am a passionate diver and it was amazing to discover the wonders of Seychelles' marine environment and sea life with four Seychellois divers. It was a great experience! I understand why tourists agree to travel several hours to discover your beautiful country!
SNA: You have seen Seychelles' achievements and weaknesses over the last few years, how would you describe them and what do you believe needs to be done to address the weaknesses at a national level?
VD: I think that Seychelles' role as a champion for ocean protection is widely known. For the EU, this is important as we share with Seychelles a real concern for ocean governance - to ensure safer and healthier oceans for all. It is also in recognition of this important role that we have decided to organise the first BlueInvest event outside Europe in Seychelles.
In the framework of our strategic approach in the Indo-Pacific region, one of our key objectives is to take forward action to strengthen ocean governance in full compliance with international law, in particular, UNCLOS, and to ensure the sustainable management of the ocean's resources while safeguarding biodiversity.
I believe that in the context of our cooperation with Seychelles in the area of sustainable fisheries and maritime security, we are contributing to this objective. In general, I would say that Seychelles' comprehensive action for environmental protection is widely recognised. I am thinking of some emblematic actions that Seychelles is implementing such as the conservation programmes on the Aldabra Atoll and in the Vallée de Mai.
Seychelles, like all of us over the world, has to face a number of challenges be it climate change, biodiversity loss, vulnerability to pandemics as well as gender inequalities. On this front, we have supported the elaboration of the first National Gender Country Profile – that I had the opportunity to hand over to the Minister for Youth, Sports and Family in the margin of the Political Dialogue in October 2022. The expert Janick Bru has identified a number of challenges including those concerning domestic violence. She has made several recommendations that I hope can be implemented in order to promote gender equality.
I also hope that we can further enhance our partnership with Seychelles in the area of maritime security in particular against drug trafficking in order that drug seizures undertaken at sea result in traffickers being held accountable.
We will continue to work closely with Seychelles in this area as well as in other important areas to build resilience to climate change, food and health crises as well as support economic growth and promote human rights. The EU will remain a reliable partner for the Republic of Seychelles.
SNA: Maritime security is of great concern to Seychelles today, especially in the face of persistent illegal drug trafficking. Will the EU's ATALANTA maritime operation continue to provide support to Seychelles in maritime security and anti-piracy efforts in the coming years or is there talk of closing this programme down?
VD: Maritime security is indeed a great concern for Seychelles and countries of the region; it is also for the European Union. In December 2022, the mandate of EU Naval Force Operation ATALANTA has been extended for another two years. It will now run until December 31, 2024. Since its establishment in late 2008, in response to the rising levels of piracy in the Western Indian Ocean, Operation ATALANTA has significantly contributed to the repression of piracy.
In 2020, its mandate was broadened to some secondary executive tasks of countering the trafficking of weapons and narcotic drugs and non-executive tasks of monitoring illegal activities at sea including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Since the start, EUNAVFOR has been working in close cooperation with Seychelles and has undertaken several port calls in Victoria.
I even remember that in May last year, we celebrated Europe Day on board the frigate Le Floréal. In December 2021, EUNAVFOR, the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (RCOC) in Seychelles and the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation for the coordination of maritime security operations and foster maritime information exchange.
|Ambassador Degert (right) welcomed President Ramkalawan on 'Le Floreal' frigate in May 2022. (Seychelles Nation) Photo License: CC-BY|
EUNAVFOR Atalanta and both regional centres conducted their first joint operation, named MARLIN, in September last year in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Seychelles. The joint operation, focused on combatting drug trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing), made it possible to detect and monitor more than 20 vessels in an area of about 150,000 square kilometres thanks to the information provided by the air assets deployed by the EU and Seychelles.
More recently, thanks to the information provided by the RCOC, the Seychelles Coast Guard seized one tonne of drugs during an operation at sea implemented with EU financial support through the MASE programme. I would also like to add that one of the major successes of the EU-Seychelles partnership is that we have agreed to tackle the issue of drugs and arms trafficking in this region through the establishment of a legal finish. It means that criminals apprehended at sea by EUNAVFOR can be transferred to the Attorney General for prosecution to face justice in Seychelles' courts.
We have managed to finalise an Exchange of Letters following fruitful discussions with the government that would extend the legal finish from piracy to cover also drugs and arms trafficking with the support of EU Member States participating in Operation ATALANTA.
Seychelles is acting as a pioneer in promoting maritime security in this region and this is highly commendable. We hope that the lead role played by Seychelles will help to bring other countries of the region to reinforce the regional maritime security architecture in order to address the scourge of drug trafficking that is negatively impacting the socio-economic fabric of many countries in this region.
SNA: The topic of sustainable tuna fisheries is high on the agenda in the western Indian Ocean region, where the European Union is a major stakeholder through the private purse seiner companies of its member countries that fish in these waters, namely French and Spanish. As a diplomat who works to protect the interests of the EU, but at the same time is aware of the environmental impacts of fish aggregating devices (FADS), have you ever found yourself in an ethical conflict in choosing between the economic needs of the EU companies and that of detrimental effects of industrial fishing in Seychelles?
VD: Thank you for your question which allows me to clarify a number of sensitive issues. The possibility for EU vessels to fish in Seychelles waters is governed by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement that we negotiate and sign with the government of Seychelles. As part of the fisheries agreement, EU fishing vessels have obligations. This means that all the operations of the EU fleet are legal, reported and subject to control.
As regards conservation measures including those related to fish aggregating devices (FADs), the current EU-Seychelles Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement provides that in order to reduce the entanglement of sharks, marine turtles, or any other non-targeted species, the EU vessels shall use non-entangling designs and materials in the construction of FADs. In addition, to reduce the impact of FADs on the ecosystem and the amount of synthetic marine debris, the EU vessels shall use natural or biodegradable materials for FADs and retrieve them in the Seychelles waters when they become non-operational FADs within the modalities of the Seychelles legislation.
|One of the latest projects that Degert and President Ramkalawan inaugurated was the Baie Ste Anne Praslin fish market and other facilities. (Romano Laurence) Photo License: CC-BY|
Actually, the fisheries agreement includes a specific provision for a dedicated marine environmental fund to which purse seine ship-owners should contribute. This fund, which is managed by the Seychelles authorities, is used for the collection of abandoned FADs drifting in the Seychelles EEZ. We have for instance partly funded the first Fish Aggregating Devices clean-up exercise mission in October last year.
Also, I wish to underline that, at the IOTC, the EU has tabled a comprehensive and stringent proposal to manage the drifting FADs that – had it been adopted – would have represented one of the most advanced texts ever adopted by a Regional Fishery Management Organisation. The adoption of this proposal would have substantially increased the sustainability of FAD fishery by reducing the number of FADs deployed to a level never even discussed in any other oceans, enforcing the use of biodegradable FADs and introducing the basis for traceability in the use of FADs. Unfortunately, the proposal was blocked by a few countries. However, we will not be discouraged and we will continue to work in order to convince that this is a step forward in the interest of all participating countries.
SNA: Has the European Union been monitoring the local press complaints concerning freedom of speech and expression as well as Seychelles' decline in the Reporters Without Borders ranking and how do you believe this issue within a democracy is best addressed?
VD: Freedom of the media is vital for democracy and is a priority of our internal policies and our external action. Here in Seychelles for instance, we support the Human Rights Commission for the organisation of sensitisation actions for the media.
We have also started to work in a new area that is attracting more and more attention at the global level – the fight against disinformation. In December 2022, the EU Cyber4Dev project organised a two-day training on 'Understanding and Fighting Disinformation in a Democratic Society' to promote media literacy.
As regards Seychelles ranking in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, we read the statement released by the State House expressing disappointment with this ranking and calling media practitioners to - allow me to quote - "do their best to achieve the highest standards possible in journalism by promoting the truth while abiding by the utmost ethical standards."
I trust and I know that the government is and will remain fully committed to maintain and implement those highest standards. Media freedom and media pluralism are essential to our democracies and are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. We will therefore continue to promote it every time and everywhere.