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Europe Day revelations with Denis Chaibi, EU Ambassador to Maldives

EU Ambassador to Srilanka and Maldives Denis Chaibi embodies the creative spirit of Europe Day as he delves into the EU’s pandemic response and recovery strategy, and paints a way forward for EU Maldives relations in the time of a post-COVID19 normal.

Rae Munavvar & Fathmath Shaahunaz
09 May 2020, MVT 12:43
Denis Chaibi, the Ambassador of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. PHOTO/EEAS-COLOMBO
Rae Munavvar & Fathmath Shaahunaz
09 May 2020, MVT 12:43

Since its first recognition in 1964 by the council of Europe, the ninth of May has been celebrated as ‘Europe Day’ amongst nations across the European continent.

This year, the day falls during uncertain and unprecedented times for the world at large, a period that marks significant challenges even for the developed nations that lie to the west of this Asian subcontinent.

It is precisely this sort of change that brings the necessity of conducting this interview on virtual platforms, and from his offices in Sri Lanka, The Edition sits with Maldives’ newest Ambassador of the European Union Denis Chaibi, for an in-depth discussion on the day, with a pointed relevance to the current times and its changing tides.

A career-diplomat for over two decades, Chaibi has, since the beginnings of his career at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1993, worked as correspondent, diplomatic advisor and head of task force at the EU, having been based in Nicosia, Washington, Syria, Iran and so on.

Specializing in trade issues, Chaibi has been a part of high profile investigations launched into many of the world’s trade giants. However, he was also a key contributor and organizer for groundbreaking EU negotiations in Cyprus, India and in the Middle East.

Seemingly though, Chaibi remains an academic at heart, holding academic degrees in the areas of law, political science, European studies, international law as well as a Masters of Law from Cambridge University. He has also continued to write and teach, particularly courses at Brussels Free University, Boston University and Cyprus institutions, as well as a short tenure at Yale University.

The Edition: “First and foremost, warm greetings to yourself, your family, the Embassy’s team and all our European readers on 2020’s Europe Day!”

Straightening his gaze to the camera, the Ambassador smiles and pivots all of his attention to these journalists, offering a gracious, “Indeed, and thank you for your time as well”.

For our readers that may not know the relevance of the day, could you please share with us the history and significance of Europe Day; to the union, individual nations and yourself personally?

“After the destruction that was wrought in World War II, it would have been easy for Europe to fall back into the same pattern of problems, as happened following the first World War.

“After the dust settled following the end of WWII, having identified as both German and French, Robert Schuman came to see the weight of the humiliation and reparation that followed in a new light.”

“He made a proposal to manage that which is essential to war, coal and steel, together. From France’s position of strength, Schuman presented this idea to Germany and other nations. This coal and steel community became the founding stone for the European Union, which of course came about much, much later.

“It is because of this extraordinary vision that we moved to this really creative way of finding solutions to problems arising over nationalism.”

“Although the world has recently noted a resurgence of nationalism, I can tell you that when I grew up, only twenty years after the declaration, there were still derogatory comments being issued to those who had lost the war and a certain level of hatred, all of which has now totally disappeared.

“People no longer think of France and Germany as über enemies, bound to hate each other for the rest of history. To the contrary, they are seen now as the motor, the engine of the EU.”

“We commemorate this day in remembrance of that evolution. But at the same time, nationalism is still there, and we have seen that it can be dangerous, so it is also a cautionary tale, as we must continue to tread lightly in these matters.”

EU Ambassador to Maldives Denis Chaibi sits down for a virtual interview with journalists of The Edition, for an in-depth discussion on Europe Day, tying its spirit of creativity to the EU's pandemic response, and the way forward for EU-Maldives relations. PHOTO/EEAS-COLOMBO

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”. This famous quote, as of course you know, is the very first line Robert Schuman penned in the declaration. Although the context is different, it rings true with these troubling times. Perhaps you could help us understand how the EU is embracing this spirit of ingenuity, given the state of the world at this moment?

He chuckles, and perhaps it is the professor in him showing, as he issues a warning that the answer may be longer and more detailed than expected.

“Unfortunately, Europe has seen many, many wars. By creating the concept of sovereignty, Europe has also been the cradle of nationalism.

“After WWII, people realised the dangers of nationalism. Robert Schuman came up with the very innovative solution that is the Shuman Declaration, which is basically supranationalism. Instead of focusing solely on what occurs within one’s own borders, this concept looks at all the problems that affect everyone, together.

“This approach is a genuine, new way of doing politics. So, for me, this intellectual creation is the most interesting political project of the 21st Century.

“It's a method based on consensus, transparent discussions, which makes it complex and difficult to grasp, but at the same time, reinforces the ownership that is essential in order to find global solutions to global problems.

“Now how this translates into concrete terms for today’s health crisis, well, consensus and ownership, the two are trademarks of the EU discussions. It can be very helpful for countries to discuss together how they can tackle this crisis at global level”.

The Ambassador punctuates his historical narrative with a very timely reminder, “This has also translated to financial arguments, the EU has programmed close to EUR 20 billion, as aid for the COVID19 response to all of the world’s nations. We have made a package to support partner countries and last Monday, there was an effort to organize a global conference to fund treatment and vaccines, and we raised EUR 7.4 billion from international donors”.

With several European Nations remaining under lockdown, what are some celebrations taking place to commemorate this day as well as the peace and unity that it represents?

“It’s very unfortunate that we cannot have open door events in Brussels or our delegations around the world, as we usually do.

“Now we have to find creative ways. With the United Nations and our Delegation in Vienna, we are partnering with nine artists from nine countries in Europe, for a nine-minute livestream performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, an ‘Ode to Joy’, which is considered the European anthem. It will symbolise the solidarity and creativity of the EU in this time.

“In Maldives, we’ve been working closely with a local architect to design a website to showcase coral stone mosques. These mosques are beautiful and we consider them one of the defining symbols of Maldivian heritage and culture.

“To add to our celebrations, on May 9 we will have a virtual event to launch the website in collaboration with the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage. This is another way to celebrate Europe Day in close cooperation with the Maldives”.

Given the situation in Europe and Maldives, akin to most places around the globe, it feels impossible to avoid venturing deeper into the subject of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and issues newly emerging in its wake. As such, could you share more with us about the EU’s strategic plan for its own recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, both economically as well as in terms of the impact on society?

“Like everyone around the world, we were taken aback by the intensity of the pandemic. Now with a bit more time, the EU has proposed a joint roadmap towards lifting containment measures and recovery.

“The first thing is, obviously, the overall social distancing is here to stay. Although the strict measures are being lifted, it is clear that each EU citizen has a responsibility and duty to observe social distancing and keep all the precautionary measures that are in place.

“The second is the measures that apply to groups. Our initial approach was very general because the priority was to flatten the curve, and allow the health sector to cope with the surge. But now with recovery, we have three main principles:

“The first is that measures have to be more targeted, because according to expert statistics, some parts of the population are more at risk than others. The second is that where measures are more targeted, they have to be more segmented. Finally, it has to be phased, because we're certainly not protected from a second wave of COVID-19 or a new surge. We need an approach that allows for testing and increasing tests as we go along, to prevent a second surge and correct measures when not fully efficient.

“A final and personal observation by many of our leaders is that this is a chance to review the way we work, how we live. This is a chance to make sure that the transitions towards a greener economy is not lost from sight. We have glimpsed how we can live in the future that is less taxing for the environment, and I hope we can capitalise on that and make sure the trend is a long lasting one”.

Of course, right now the priority must be to contain the spread in EU nations. But, in the near future, does the EU have any plans to extend further aid and assistance to Maldives and other developing nations?

“As the Commission’s President [Ursula] von der Leyen said, ‘It is only by helping others that we can help ourselves’.

So this is why the EU has announced the EUR 20 billion package that I mentioned earlier.

“At the same time, we have specific funding for the Maldives. We announced a package of EUR 3 million to support the government’s response. Some of these funds will go to the health sector through WHO, and we will also allocate some funds for the tourism industry. In particular, we’re looking at the smaller operators because we want European tourists to return to the Maldives as soon as it’s safe to do so and we believe the Maldives’ model is quite well adapted to a post-COVID-19 tourism era”.

Here, the Ambassador’s tone takes a more fervent approach as he shifts focus to the Maldives’ response to the pandemic.

“One thing we really appreciate from Maldives is that 35,000 [European] tourists were able to leave the Maldives safely and quickly [amid the pandemic]. These actions were based on expert recommendations and we’re really grateful to the Maldivian government for having an expert-based approach.

“The second thing we really appreciate from the Maldives is that they have been very, very transparent. As soon as the first cases came out, we got used to these press conferences, they are timely, [held] everyday and very transparent. This overall communication drive really gave confidence to those who work with Maldives and I hope it gave a sense of ownership to the Maldivians in the way they want to tackle this”.

Denis Chaibi, the Ambassador of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. PHOTO/EEAS-COLOMBO

We’d like to quote the Schuman Declaration once more, which states “The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations”. The COVID-19 response has been compared to a human war on a new frontier, due to its severity as well as the apparent need for collective action in our globalised world, by many of its leaders. What, in your opinion, is the biggest take-away for small developing countries like Maldives, in this “war” against the novel coronavirus?

“I’m aware that a lot of people are keen to use a military analogy and ‘the war against the virus’; but I personally like the concept of ‘the test of all humanity’. That's what the president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said. But the emphasis is much more on solidarity than the notion of fighting.

“We’re not in conflict with each other. On the contrary, we’re showing unprecedented levels of international solidarity; for example, in search of the vaccine. The EU prefers to underline how interconnected we all are.

“The biggest takeaway from this crisis, not just for the Maldives, is that in a world that is so interconnected, we need more multilateralism and international cooperation than confrontation. Confrontation leads to increased risk of propagation, whereas cooperation and transparency, as the Maldives has done, allows us toward much better data, to tackle together this incredible pandemic.

“If there is one thing the virus has shown, it is that it has no borders. So we have no option than to join efforts to find a solution”.

With global tourism at a standstill, in addition to aid in the form of grants and equipment, it could be said that the EU is in a position to relieve Maldives’ economic burden in other ways.

As Maldives’ is a leading supplier of Tuna to Europe, it has been suggested that, should the EU move to restart purchasing Maldivian fish products at elevated prices, it would not only amplify Maldives’ second biggest industry but build overall economic resilience. Could the sustainability of Maldivian pole and line fishing, coupled with EU’s priority to environmental issues and the economic recession brought on by the pandemic, justify a possible raise in tuna prices and is there any consideration for such a tactic?

“When I first heard the news that I was to be appointed Ambassador to Maldives and Sri Lanka, and in the conversations that followed, Tuna was the first topic broached to me. Nearly a year now, and I think I have discussed it every month - almost”. His expression turns slightly amused, no doubt, at having to discuss it again.

“Obviously, in terms of merits of the case - it’s a very good one, from the sustainability aspect to that of equality and social justice. Nevertheless, the legal framework of the WTO is a rigid one; you can only have concessional tariffs as part of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in line with WTO rules

“The constraint offers no flexibility. We cannot change the legality, just on the basis of that element. The rules of the WTO are global in nature, and at the moment they are very sensitive because several countries do wish to distantiate themselves from the organization.

“This doesn’t mean that the EU will not reflect more profoundly on trade regimes and how they can help, but it is a much deeper contemplation that will not deliver an immediate response to this issue, I’m afraid”.

Lastly, if you could shed some light on the EU's existing engagements, or those set to commence, for instance in the areas of judicial reform, law reform, economic development and so forth. As we find ourselves having to adapt to a new normal, is there any action plan, in terms of providing technical assistance, to facilitate the forward movement of these initiatives?

“In addition to the EUR 3 million donated for the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is also reflecting on support for the Maldives.

“We’ve had ongoing projects that are still being implemented and are a good segue for future engagements. In our conversation, I’ve underlined how important the environment is for the EU, and we are convinced it is equally or even more important for the Maldives.

“In 2019, we signed a financing agreement of EUR 5 million to support the Maldives in implementing its nationally determined contributions. Further, the European Investment Bank has signed a loan of EUR 45 million to support renewable energy projects in the Maldives.

“We have also designed a project on judicial reform and anti-corruption. We have put a great deal of effort because we believe it will have a tremendous impact towards reform.

“We also want to support the strengthening of the parliament and media institutions. This pandemic is another reminder of how important information is in tackling enormous challenges.

“We’ve also provided EUR 2.5 million to support Maldives’ counterterrorism efforts, to combat violent extremism. The government has been fairly transparent, having recognized the issue and seems determined to tackle it.

“Some efforts have already been adapted in the COVID-19 response”.

Adopting a more optimistic outlook

With a twinkle in his eye, Ambassador Chaibi confirmed across the interview that, despite the repercussions brought on worldwide by the ongoing pandemic, the European Union remains steadfast in its commitment to the Maldives.

This spirit of collaboration and cooperation would apply, he said, across existing engagements. Meanwhile, a number of ways in which it has given new life to rising, more pressing concerns, has been demonstrated, carving a path that Chaibi assures, will set the way forward.

Indeed, even nestled far away in the tropics of South-East Asia, during the days and weeks spent under lockdown that have seemingly merged together in sameness, Europe Day can still serve as a remarkable reminder of the ways in which togetherness, unity and creativity can reshape our world for the better.

The memory of wars so terrible they ravaged the world just two centuries ago, can serve as a powerful message for generations today, as it tells the story of humanity’s perseverance and evolution, lending a perspective that perhaps, far better days are yet to come.

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