I am delighted to have been asked to open this Second International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea and to welcome you to the United Kingdom.
I am particularly pleased because, as the United Kingdom's Patron of the European Year of the Environment, I have a particular interest in the outcome of your deliberations today.
The North Sea was once one of Europe's great highways. It brought Danes, Norsemen, Flemings, Dutchmen, Frenchmen and Germans to Britain, and it carried Britons to a mixed reception on the mainland of Europe.
As an island, perhaps the United kingdom has depended more than most nations on the sea for food, for transport and for its defence. This 'silver sea' was also, and still is, one of the world?s richest fishing zones - as well as a playground for sailors and a source of inspiration for poets and painters.
But over the past century we have made it into a rubbish dump. The effluents we pour heedlessly into its waters are a threat to its delicate ecological balance.
Some argue that we do not have enough proof of danger to justify stricter controls on dumping or to warrant the extra expenditure involved. They say that we must wait for science to provide that proof.
If science has taught us anything, however, it is that the environment is full of uncertainty. It makes no sense to test it to destruction. While we wait for the doctor?s diagnosis, the patient may easily die!
And, whatever else we may be prepared to accept, we do know enough for us to agree that the North Sea is not a bottomless pit for our waste - even if we can not calculate, precisely, what last ton it will take to break the ecosystem's back.
We are right, I believe, to take the precautionary line, which I know this meeting is being advised to do. We are right to cut the input of dangerous substances, like heavy metals and organic chemicals, into the North Sea, and to develop a system of measuring pollution levels which is common to all.
We are right to take measures to protect shallow, landlocked areas that are often both at greatest risk and richest in wildlife.
We are right to take steps to tackle the garbage that lines some of our beaches with a ribbon of filth. This Summer's Europe-wide clean beaches campaign week was a step in the right direction.
We are also right to look at ways of controlling inputs of dangerous substances into our rivers and estuaries, which are such a significant source of contamination in the North Sea.
We do not, ladies and gentlemen, have a lot of time left in which to act. Even if we begin today, the damage of the past few years will be us for some time to come.
In fact, knowing how long this stuff lies around, I fear that some of the rubbish tossed overboard from the ship I commanded ten years ago in the Royal Navy may still be there!
We know enough, then, to know that these things are not good for our life support system or for our quality of life, and that our activities have damaging effects on our wildlife.
Therefore, how we decide to use our oceans and our waterways in future is probably one of the most important choices for this particular generation.
And it is really simply no use pointing national fingers at each other in some sort of ugliness contest to find the dirtiest man in Europe!
The fact is that we are all responsible. We all discharge pollution, regardless of how our different countries measure it, and regardless of whether our activities pollute our own backyard or someone else's.
And it really doesn't matter how we apportion blame. The fact is that only joint action can remedy the situation.
People speak of the oceans as 'the global commons'. A common is something that is owned by none but shared by all and, just as on land, a common is especially precious simply because it belongs to everyone. In this way, the seas are especially precious because we all have a stake in their welfare.
Many worthwhile things are already being done. This conference is one of them. This is our opportunity to protect our common North Sea heritage for future generation of Europeans.
I hope that, when you leave here, you will go armed with more than just words on a paper. I hope that you will leave armed with a firm commitment to a clean and healthy marine environment. You will, certainly, earn the thanks of all the peoples of Europe, even if there is a bit of an extra price to pay for it. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you real success in your negotiations today, and have great pleasure in declaring open the Second Ministerial Conference on the North Sea.