Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

The Baltic 'Big Sea' strategy

  • Parts of the Baltic Sea, seen from space (Photo: NASA)

Whenever Estonians and Finns try to characterise their nationalities, they usually end up citing the influence of 'The Sea', and the climate more broadly, on their collective psyche.

The Sea for us is, of course, the Baltic Sea – and this sea touches the lives of altogether 85 million people, far beyond the populations of the two small Nordic nations we come from.

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That is around 17 percent of the population of the EU – living also in Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania and Latvia, not to mention millions on the Russian coast, in Belarus and in Norway.

In fact, while some of the people around The Sea call it the East Sea, and some the West Sea, and many others the Baltic Sea – maybe the old Latvian fishermen were closest to the truth: they called it The Big Sea (liela jura).

It was the recognition of the role of The Sea in the lives of such a large share of Europeans, and of the shared nature of concerns of the people living around The Sea, that propelled us, then in the role of members of the European Parliament, to initiate, 12 years ago, the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (BSR).

We were prompted by the realisation that with the accession of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to the European Union on 1 May 2004, the Baltic Sea had become almost entirely a 'European lake'.

A European lake

Our hope was two-fold: to more easily approach challenges that before EU enlargement required other types of coordination structures.

The environment and ecology of the Baltic Sea was topmost on our minds.

Secondly to develop closer co-operation between the EU members in the Baltic Sea Region – digitisation, reducing bureaucratic non-tariff barriers.

Materialising two years later and periodically updated since then, it should remain on the captains' table.

So how can The Sea bring together such a large, diverse number of people across these various countries? What might the young and the old, the fishermen and the cruise traveller, those who lived on the opposite sides of the iron curtain for decades, have in common?

For one, we all want to protect The Sea better. Secondly, as in thousands of years ago when The Sea literally fed us, we want to use The Sea to maximise our prosperity, in a sustainable manner.

We should also learn about how The Sea has shaped our respective cultures, and thereby help us understand each other better, help us connect.

These three main goals are closely interlinked: for example, better cooperation amongst the coastal states around The Sea can lead to synergies in planning and implementing of measures to improve maritime safety, which, in turn, helps reduce risks to tourism, fishing and other economic activities that depend on The Sea.

At the 9th annual forum of the strategy convenes at the beginning of June, it was worth remembering the EU's Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region was never aimed at being just a message in the bottle, from the coastal nations to the EU.

It was written as an action plan – because there are practical issues at stake.

Things such as vessel traffic monitoring, routing and information systems, ensuring adequate life-saving capabilities, pollution preparedness and response capacity, training and experience sharing of navigators – just to mention some of the activities to improve the safety of The Sea.

Today we can note significant achievements: BSR projects to develop cross-border cooperation in crucial areas of environment are the best positive examples.

If carried out successfully, they help to achieve political commitments at global level such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals or at the regional level, as restated in the recent ministerial declaration of HELCOM - Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission on restoring the good environmental status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021.

As we look to the growth of consumption in general, the need for macro regional projects to facilitate the prevention and reduction of marine litter created around the Baltic Sea or to reduce eutrophication, reduce contributions of shipping to air pollution and contributions to loads of contaminants in seawater, remain vital also in the future.

Equally important is fostering closer ties among the nations around the Baltic. A concrete example is the mutual, reciprocal digital prescription between Estonia and Finland.

If a Finn visiting Estonia (or vice versa) loses his medicine, he can as of this summer take out his Finnish prescription in any Estonian pharmacy.

This should be a goal for at least all EU members in our region (provided they implement the digital prescription).

The European Investment Bank was founded 60 years ago exactly for these kind of projects: the treaty commits the bank to financing "projects of common interest to several member states which are of such a size or nature that they cannot be entirely financed by … individual member states."

And with investments in (waste)water projects, in the blue economy, in the energy sector in the region, the bank has been doing just that. Now, as the discussion around the EU's next multiannual financial framework has started, we need a vocal input from the region also on how to finance the future developments.

Many successful projects have been implemented under the strategy, and still much can be done.

Alexander Stubb is vice president of the European Investment Bank and a former prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister of Finland.Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a former president of Estonia.

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