Mr Piet Pieters: Esteemed Ladies and Gentlemen,
Many thanks to the Croatian hosts for welcoming us so warmly to their beautiful country. We are very honoured to greet you as the new co-chairs of the European Coast Guard Functions Forum and representatives of the Belgian Coast Guard.
In 2022-2023, we will take you to the other side of Europe, to the waters of the North Sea. That sounds a bit fresher than Croatia, but due to climate change, we now also reach 40 degrees in summer.
As the North Sea is situated in Flanders and in Belgium, hence our dual representation which is immediately a reflection of the structures within our federal state/country.
The Belgian waters are home to tugs, tankers, motorboats, passenger ships and sailing yachts. Sand and gravel are extracted and dredged. There are military training areas, windmills and sea farms, alongside environmentally and otherwise protected areas. Furthermore, the North Sea area is littered with sand banks, wrecks and a whole network of pipelines and cables. The North Sea is bustling with activity.
Ms Nathalie Balcaen: Ladies and gentlemen, I am Nathalie Balcaen, Administrator General of the Agency for Maritime and coastal Services and regional chair of the coast guard in Belgium
There are 17 Belgian coastguard partners, each with their own responsibilities but also cooperating to carry out the coastguard functions. There are cooperating partners at the regional and federal level also the governor of the province of West Flanders is involved. The most important responsibility of the Coast Guard is to ensure a good cooperation between these different partners so that actions at sea can be handled more efficiently.
The three most important principles of the Coast Guard are,
1. Ensure equality between the different partners;
2. respect each other's competences and
3. make optimal use of resources to avoid extra costs.
The operational part of the Coast Guard consists of the Maritime Security Centre Belgium (MIK) and the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC). Through European projects such as MAiDEN, they aim to evolve towards an efficient and automated exchange of data between the Coast Guard partners.
To illustrate how diverse our activities are, we highlight some examples of working groups and projects in which the Coast Guard partners work together carrying out all Coast Guard functions.
Mr Piet Pieters: There is an ongoing working group that investigates the replacement of the existing Coast Guard aircraft triple Mike (MMM), where the results of collaborations and partnerships with neighbouring countries such as operation 'white sea' are taken into account, as well as the support of the agencies in the research of using drones to enhance the monitoring process.
Climate change as mentioned earlier, directly leads us to one of the greatest challenges ahead of us. Combined with the current political situation due to the war between Ukraine and Russia, this means that we must act without delay and commit to renewable energy at European level. The blue economy is growing like never before. Our newest Belgian pride, by which we do not mean chocolate, beer, or waffles.... is the development of offshore wind farms.
Offshore wind farms currently represent about 10% of Belgium's total electricity demand. 2021 was the first year in which the offshore wind energy zone, located between 23 and 54 km off the coast, became fully operational. Those who will visit Ostend can observe them from the coastline if the weather is good. In 2021, the wind turbines produced a capacity equal to that of the two largest Belgian nuclear reactors combined. This is comparable to the annual electricity demand of almost 2 million households. In addition, the operational farms ensure significant CO2 savings at the Belgian level. By 2030, the offshore wind capacity in the North Sea will further increase to approximately 30% of the electricity demand.
The success of our Belgian water sports icons encourages many people to follow in their footsteps. We see a growing popularity of water sports in all shapes and forms. Apart from water sports enthusiasts, there are many other recreants and professionals active at sea. That combined with a hot summer this year was particularly challenging for our Search & rescue services.
Ms Nathalie Balcaen: Last year, a sea farm was constructed in the Belgian part of the North Sea.
In order to identify intrusions into this area more easily, the use of cameras at sea is studied with a recent adaption of Belgian legislation to this end.
There are also test projects launched with solar panels, wave and tidal energy at sea and meanwhile, we are occupied with protecting our coastline against a sea level rise of up to 3 metres. Of course, all those new activities bring new challenges in terms of safety and security.
Just think of the many sea cables that bring energy from the wind farms to land. The gas pipelines and data cables that come ashore at the Belgian coast are of vital importance not only to Belgium but also to other EU countries. The increased number of facilities, in turn, create new types of incidents.
Last February, during the severe Eunice storm, two ships were adrift in the wind farms. Fortunately, vigilance and prompt action on the part of the coast guard partners prevented possible disastrous consequences. I would like to thank the Dutch coast guard for the successful cooperation. We must continually learn from past incidents and experiences and commit to finding suitable and innovative solutions.
This forum is a unique and excellent instrument that allows us to exchange information, to share best practices and lessons-learnt, to benefit from joint exercises, to collectively devise solution and overcome obstacles, in short to strengthen our ties.
I hope that, through the organization of two workshops with Frontex and EMSA, the cybersecurity working group meetings, the exercise “COASTEX 23” in cooperation with EFCA and the Plenary conference in cooperation with DG MARE, we will also be able to provide all participants a chance to get to know our diversified/multi-faceted little country. So yes, in the end we will do talk about beer, chocolate and waffles. A warm welcome to our country during the next year.