Monday

24th Sep 2018

Opinion

Baltic Sea co-operation may show Europe at its best

  • The EU's Baltic Sea Region Strategy may be a source of inspiration for the Danube River Basin Strategy (Photo: Nord Stream)

Late on a Friday evening in October, a powerful explosion was heard in the dark waters off the German Baltic Sea coast. The detonation, in a truck onboard the Lisco Gloria ferry plying the route from Germany to Lithuania, set the ship ablaze.

Nobody died. In fact, only three people were lightly injured. The 249 passengers and crew were swiftly evacuated by German and Danish ships and rescue helicopters with Swedish units also standing by. None of the bunker oil leaked even though the fire raged for hours.

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Having put out the fire, the ferry was towed into Danish waters escorted by a flotilla of coast guard, rescue and pollution control vessels. The Lisco Gloria episode unfolded so quickly that it barely made the news - in sharp contrast to three previous Baltic sea shipping disasters in the 1990s involving Danish, Polish and Estonian vessels which claimed hundreds of lives.

That the rescue was mounted so quickly and so successfully says a lot for the efficiency of the German and Danish rescue authorities and the professionalism of crews on nearby ships on 8 October. It is also proof of the close and long-standing cooperation between rescue and coast guard authorities in the Baltic Sea Region.

These ties are vitally important, as the sea is Europe's most vulnerable large body of water due to its minimal inflows from the oceans and average depth of only 53 metres compared with 1,500 metres in the Mediterranean Sea which mean oil spills or other pollutants are not easily dispersed. This danger is very real as the Baltic Sea is a very busy shipping route. On a normal day as many as 2,000 ships - many of them oil tankers - will be crossing the sea. In such an environment, national authorities must be able to work together to ensure safety and prevent disasters.

This co-operation and the mutual trust it brings has been in place for decades and dates back to the 1974 Helcom treaty for monitoring the Baltic Sea marine environment. The treaty paved the way for multi-million-euro investments by the European Investment Bank (EIB) and by other investors, such as those in St Petersburg, where in 2012 fully 96 percent of the wastewater will be treated. Such projects are now beginning to have an effect. In spite of record temperatures during the summer of 2010, algae blooming in the sea was much less of a problem than in previous years.

The close relationships are paying off in other areas too. One example is the economy. Adjustment policies in the Baltic states in 2008 and 2009 were made easier by the close ties between governments, central banks and financial institutions around the Baltic Sea.

Two decades after the Iron Curtain was lifted, these links have been re-established and the Baltic is once again - as was the case for centuries - a sea that binds the region together. This is evident also in increased investment, trade and economic integration, which have contributed to the region's leadership in innovation.

According to data assembled by the EIB, of the 21 most innovative regions in the European Union, measured by regional R&D intensity, as many as seven are in Sweden and Finland. Also, Denmark is significantly above the European Union average and soon-to-be-Eurozone-member Estonia is higher than the average for the 10 new EU member states while progress is also made in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

This means the EU Baltic Sea Region Strategy - the EU's first macro-regional strategy - can build on well-established common ground in its support for important projects within research and development, the environment, transport, energy, education, health care and other areas. But it also puts the focus on how such a strategy could further enhance trust, openness to new ideas and prosperity.

Making the strategy work obviously takes time. But the investment is worth it, because where there is trust and understanding, there is a better chance that science and innovation will rise and that capital and ideas will flow. In that sense the EU Baltic Sea Region Strategy may be a source of inspiration for the EU Danube River Basin Strategy.

Eva Srejber is Vice-President of the European Investment Bank with special responsibility for financing operations in Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, EFTA countries, the EU's Eastern neighbors and Central Asia

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