In February 2021 the EU welcomed the revised Action Plan of the European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region to boost the recovery through cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region. The EUSBSR Action Plan emphasizes the cooperation not only among EU partners but also cooperation with neighbouring non-EU countries as essential elements into all 14 policy areas. Norway and Iceland as well as Russia and Belarus are linked to the Baltic Sea Region through historical, political, economic, environmental, cultural and people-to-people ties.
We asked Mr. Olav Berstad from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about his opinion on the Baltic Sea Region cooperation from a non-EU country perspective.
The Baltic Sea Region seen from a Norwegian viewpoint
Most Norwegians, I think, have a limited understanding of Norway as a Baltic Sea Region country. But in fact we are! Our neighbours are among Norway’s most important political and economic partners, backed by huge trade volumes, a lot of cultural and people-to-people contacts, business and science, tourism. Security links and commitments too. Norway together with Iceland are members of the internal market through the European Economic Area agreement. We exemplify that Europe is more than the European Union, that European integration and cohesion have many participants and aspects.
The BSR countries share similar ambitions. We want our Region to be a champion in sustainable development. We have the political, economic and scientific infrastructure to succeed. The web of cooperation formats developed after 1990-91 is extensive and geared towards building trust and promoting interaction between people and business in different countries or communities, bringing social and economic progress. However, I am concerned about the line of separation between the EEA/EU and Russia. This line must be a line of intensified cooperation, not of division.
With Norway’s presidency of the CBSS as background, and with the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Arctic Council, the Northern Dimension in mind, we can see how all cooperation formats mutually reinforce each other. Clearly visible is also the effect of strong EU territorial and cohesion policies. Norway and Iceland bring the European Economic Area and Norwegian financial mechanisms into the cooperation framework and a special partnership with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The programs support both EU policies and promote bilateral cooperation.
Norway perceives inclusive and diverse cooperation with other partners as a key factor for success
It is essential now to concentrate efforts on the green transition in all aspects. Climate neutrality is a necessity, and also an economic growth opportunity. But we will not succeed without support and solutions on the ground. Cooperation does not only depend on how governments interact but even more on how sub-regional, city and municipal authorities, business, NGOs, youth and other stakeholders share experiences, best practices and get inspiration from each other.
The BSR cooperation is a success story, based on principles of openness and inclusion. The EUSBSR is not only a strategy for harmonised development of eight EU member countries, but a mission to work together with neighbours in a common direction. Its strength lies in practical cooperation, stimulating and nurturing contact across borders, professions and governance levels.
The EUSBSR objectives of Saving the sea, Connecting the Region, and Increasing prosperity are calls for collective action and a platform for discussing new ideas, testing out solutions, promoting new policies. The 14 policy areas should include more non-EU partners. It is not only a matter of financing, but also of recognising the usefulness and potential of this format. The bottom-up approach is of great importance in legitimizing priorities in policies and legislative processes, and a way to bring the local and regional experience up the ladder of decision-making.
Youth power is what can bring the Region closer together
Successful cooperation and integration come from “within”. Young people must be drawn more strongly into the EUSBSR and other fora. The young people of today are a privileged group, with unprecedented freedom and choice with regard to education, employment, travel. Many of them may have lost faith in the future and are concerned.. Engaging young people has always been important. They are our future, they need to become successful managers and operators of our ever more complex societies. The Baltic Sea Region cooperation with all its qualities offers an excellent platform to engage youth not only in local and national matters, but in a truly macro-regional and international setting.
It is good to know, that Norway is interested in close cooperation with other BSR countries, despite the limited feeling of Norwegians being a part of the Region. Many initiatives mentioned by Mr. Berstad prove the engagement, interest and real activities undertaken by Norway for the development of the whole macro-region. There are so many projects in which Norwegian partners play a significant role and work for the common outputs and outcomes. In my opinion the mutual understanding of common goals and the awareness of common challenges is essential. For instance, the climate change consequences have an impact on the entire BSR and it is important to work together to mitigate them. It is to be hoped that cooperation with other BSR non-EU countries will be equally efficient and fruitful. The stakeholders from Iceland, Russia and Belarus should be invited and welcomed however there are political turbulences and visible obstacles especially relating to Belarus now.
In the end, we would like to mention what Mrs. Elisa Ferreira, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, said: “More than ever before, Europe’s recovery and prosperity demand cooperation across policy areas, countries and regions. The coronavirus pandemic shows that international cooperation is an essential approach in solving cross-border issues and has proved to be an effective tool to strengthen, share and accelerate resilience, recovery and secure economic and social development. Cooperation is at the essence of the EU Cohesion policy, and the updated Action Plan of the Baltic Sea Region Strategy comes at the right time.”
By Rafał Rolka & Małgorzata Matkowska – “Let’s communicate!” project