“Fish cannot vote – but fisherman do” summarised the Foreign Minister in requesting the European Parliament and Commission to grant the Maldives access to the EU with preferential tariffs as it does for Mauritius, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka. Currently all fish from the Maldives carry a 24 percent duty when being brought into the EU. In defence of the fisherfolk of the Maldives, the Ambassador to the EU, Mr Hassan Sobir, highlighted that Maldivian fisherfolk are the “greenest and the cleanest, they are eco-friendly in their fishing as all fish are caught only on lines and poles. There are no sweeps of the ocean floor nor net fishing. It is sustainable fishing.”
In November 2018, Abdulla Shahid took over the office of Maldivian Foreign Minister. In his new role, Minister Shahid has striven to improve the Maldives prospects for economic and social development. He has actively been traversing the world in search of support for the paradise islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives offer Europe a strong strategic foothold in the region, along with numerous other opportunities, both in terms of tourism and trade.
Arriving from signing a visa-waiver agreement with Russia, Minister Shahid met with the European Parliament High Representative Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the European External Action Services (EEAS) with the goal of establishing a Schengen visa office in Malé, capital of the Maldives, while also offering Europe its unique line caught tuna. The Minster was accompanied by Mr. Ahmed Khaleel State Minister for Finance, Mr. Hassan Sobir Ambassador to the European Union and Mr. Omar Abdul Razak, Ambassador to Sri Lanka.
In the past year, the Maldives successfully held presidential and parliamentary elections, ousting a dictator and his alleged corrupt regime, while re-establishing a process of democracy in the country. However, as the Maldivian Foreign Minister was quick to reflect “One cannot hold on to democracy when people have no economic or social development – we need a consolidation of democracy where the people can feel the tangible benefits”.
In recognition of the Maldives commitment to transparency, fighting corruption and implementing the principles of democracy, the EU has recently lifted the framework for restrictive measures against the Maldives. The EEAS press statement confirmed that “The new Government of the Maldives has demonstrated a welcome commitment to consolidate democracy, ensure good governance and strengthen the rule of law. Federica Mogherini underlined the EU’s readiness to support the Maldives on its path of democracy and socio-economic development.”
In this respect the Foreign Minister also visited Members of the European Parliament, including Tomas Zdechovsky, and Henri Malosse former President of the European Economic and Social Committee. He bought a message of thanks from the President and the people of the Maldives to both advocates of their stance and calling for free and fair elections during their 2018 visit to the islands. Minister Shahid specifically thanked Zdechovsky and Malosse for their visit and support for democracy during the time of the Presidential elections. The challenges and transparency of the electoral process, which were disclosed to the people of the Maldives during the visits, have allowed for the Maldives to replace a repressive regime with a government that prioritises civil society engagement, transparent processes and freedom of the press.
The Foreign Minister and the Ambassador to the European Union requested the European Union consider a Schengen visa issuing office in Malé because there was no such facility in the country for people who travel for business. Those seeking visas to Europe are forced to go to India or Sri Lanka. In line with European standards and requirements all Maldivian passports have biometric chips embedded in them which will help facilitate the visa process.
High Representative Mogherini and Minister Shahid also discussed closer EU-Maldives cooperation in the area of counterterrorism and security reform. They agreed on the shared interest in upholding rules-based international order, benefiting unhindered trade and peaceful coexistence in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
With the global challenge of climate change and environmental issues high on the agenda for the EU and the Maldives, Henri Malosse encouraged the Foreign Minister to take up the opportunity of joint cooperation with regional partners facing similar issues, and offered to host a regional partnership discussion to identify ways forward. It is without doubt that the Maldives have found allies, and a potential positive working relationship, with the European Union if it can strengthen its democratic foundations, and socio-economic development over the coming years.