6th Dec 2023

EU mulls Baltic Sea strategy

  • A seagull on Sweden's Baltic Sea coast (Photo:

The European Commission and the upcoming Swedish EU presidency are planning to generate fresh political momentum for cleaning up the Baltic Sea and connecting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to EU energy grids.

The "Baltic Sea Strategy" - the EU's first regional-level policy - is to create a new club for the eight Baltic coastal countries which may in future meet regularly at foreign minister level to push forward local-interest projects.

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The club will not have its own budget or secretariat but is likely to be supported by a new cell in the commission's regions department, which is responsible for spending the lion's share of EU annual funds.

The move "seeks to fulfill the potential of the 2004 enlargement" in the words of the commission's draft policy blueprint, which suggests that existing regional organs like the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) have seen little action in past years.

The commission aims to present a final Baltic Sea "communication" to EU states in May in time for adoption by the Swedish EU presidency's autumn summit. Implementation could begin in 2010.

Quirks of geography make the Baltic Sea vulnerable to pollution. Just 50 to 60 metres deep on average, it is linked to the oceans by the narrow Kattegat strait, meaning its waters are renewed once every 30 years.

The sea is ringed by heavily-industrialised countries like Germany and Poland and at any given time hosts 15 percent of the EU's entire trading fleet, with oil and liquid gas tankers prominent among the traffic.

Summertime algae blooms feeding off badly-treated sewage already make swimming a poor prospect in areas such as the Gulf of Finland or the Gulf of Riga.

To make matters worse, German and Russian WWII-era ammunition - including up to 350,000 tonnes of chemical weapons - litters the sea bed. Germany and Russia plan in spring to start laying the "Nord Stream" gas pipeline across the submerged minefield.

Meanwhile, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are cut off from the EU's electricity grids. With a looming shutdown of Lithuania's nuclear facility, the post-Soviet countries fear becoming wholly dependent on Russia for powering factories and homes.

Phosphates and power cables

The commission's emerging wish-list of projects includes building a string of new sewage plants around the Baltic rim, banning the use of phosphates in detergents and the use of hazardous metals such as mercury and cadmium.

Other ideas could see the development of a common surveillance system for Baltic coastguards to prevent ship collisions and collisions with ice.

Shipwrecks containing toxic chemicals are to be cleaned up. The WWII-era ordnance is to be more accurately mapped and, where possible, taken up or sealed in concrete.

The policy will not address the viability of Nord Stream, which has become a matter for national environmental courts and foreign policy.

But it will accelerate laying power cables from the post-Soviet EU countries to Sweden, Finland and Poland. Electricity-trading is to be made easier by the creation of an "integrated internal market for energy in the Baltic Sea region."

The autumn signature of the EU leaders is seen as vital for getting work done in an area that has seen countless "recommendations" fall by the wayside in recent years.

"We really need a high-level commitment, a sense of responsibility from entire governments," an EU official said, adding that the policy launch will also generate public pressure.

"The [energy] interconnector plan is already important in the Baltic states [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania], but it needs political weight in Sweden and Finland."

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