Wednesday

22nd Nov 2017

Baltic Sea strategy to combat pollution and regional disconnections

The European Commission on Wednesday is set to present a strategy and action plan for the Baltic Sea region aimed at cleaning up the heavily polluted sea, interconnect power grids and transport networks, tear down trade barriers and combat trafficking and organised crime along the borders, according to two draft documents seen by EUobserver.

The strategy, aimed at better integrating various initiatives by member states and regional co-operation networks, is focusing on four core priorities - environment, economy, energy and transport, safety and security.

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  • Pollution and lack of oxygen are slowly killing the Baltic Sea. (Photo: Helcom)

Each of the eight member states involved - Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden – is penned down as "co-ordinator" for one or several of the 15 actions outlined in the 68-page-long action plan accompanying the strategy.

The strategy is a first attempt to have a co-ordinated approach in a so-called EU macro-region - the Baltic Sea region covering 106 million people, or 23 percent of EU's population. A similar approach to the Danube region or the Alps could also follow, if this one proves successful, and could have an impact on the priorities for regional funding in the next seven-year EU budget period starting in 2014.

There is no extra money as yet earmarked for this strategy, but the co-ordinated approach could improve the use of EU funds for infrastructure projects like water treatment plants or railway links.

"We are not re-inventing the wheel, but rather making sure that the four wheels of the vehicle are going in the same direction," an EU official familiar with the matter told this website.

Knud Andersen, a Danish politician promoting regional cooperation around the Baltic Sea, said he had „argued heavily" for the EU commission to take leadership on this strategy and to have the endorsement of the rest of Europe. „There are over 60 different organisations in the Baltic area and it is for the first time that there is an overall strategy for the whole region," he told EUobserver.

Russia, the ninth country bordering the Baltic Sea, will be involved only in specific projects via existing regional frameworks such as the Northern Dimension – an EU external co-operation framework that also includes Norway, Iceland and Helcom, the Helsinki-based co-operation body on marine environment protection in the Baltic Sea.

"The strategy is an internal one addressed to the European Union and its member states. The effectiveness of some of the proposed actions will be enhanced by continuing constructive co-operation with interested [non-EU] countries in the region," the draft strategy reads.

The implementation of environmental measures, for instance reducing the levels of toxic substances in the sea, heavily depends on the cooperation with Russia. Progress in the Northern Dimension framework has so far been limited in this aspect.

Both the EU commission when drafting the strategy, as well as the upcoming Swedish EU presidency which will oversee the endorsement of the strategy by all member states in October have informed Russia about this initiative.

"Russia has not shared any scepticism with us, but seemed happy that we discussed the implementation of the strategy that applies to them within the Northern Dimension. And the Baltic states also seem happy with this solution," a Swedish diplomat told this website.

Poland coordinates sewage water management

According to the draft action plan, Poland will co-ordinate measures aimed at reducing the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the sea, which mainly originate from sewage water and maritime traffic.

Examples of projects include waste water treatment plants around the Baltic Sea, as well as phasing-out timetables for the use of phosphates in detergents used in the countries bordering these waters.

Over-fishing and other threats to the biodiversity of the sea will be dealt with by Germany, Denmark will oversee research on the impact of climate change on the region, while Sweden will co-ordinate decontamination efforts of ship wrecks and chemical weapons sunk in the Baltic Sea.

No co-ordinator was yet penned down for clean shipping measures, for instance cleaning up the waste left behind by transitting ships and improving garbage handling in ports.

Although the strategy is not addressing any of the current economic woes of the region, as it targets developments in five-ten years time, it does include a set of measures aimed at removing trade barriers and improving transnational co-operation in research and innovation – the latter being co-ordinated by Poland and Sweden.

On energy and transport, the strategy identifies an urgent need for interconnecting the countries of the region.

"The energy markets lack appropriate infrastructures and are too nationally oriented instead of being linked across the region. This creates higher energy supply risks and prices. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain, with the exception of the Estlink power cable between Estonia and Finland, essentially isolated from the wider energy networks of the European Union," the strategy notes.

Latvia will coordinate measures aimed at improving the access, efficiency and security of energy markets.

Rail network reflects East-West divide

Currently, it takes 40 hours and six changes to travel by train from Warsaw to Tallinn – via Minsk and Sankt Petersburg and there is still no train connection between neighbouring capitals of Tallinn and Riga, some 300 km away from each other.

"The lack of the North-South linkages in the eastern Baltic Sea region relates to the "divide and rule" empire-building approach of the former Soviet Union: East-West linkages connecting each Soviet republic to the central powerhouse of Moscow were developed and inter-regional linkages very consciously avoided," Alexander Dubois, an expert on the region writes in the Journal of Nordregio.

Lithuania is provisionally written down for coordinating the transport projects, which include a "Rail Baltica" linking Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Finland through a rail-ferry service.

Improved connections with neighbouring countries like Russia and Norway are also included, as well as shorter plane routes, a "Baltic motorway of the sea" and smarter transport initiatives minimising the environmental impact.

Under the fourth priority – safety and security – the maritime aspects will be coordinated by Finland.

A natural route for oil transports, especially from Russia, the Baltic Sea is endangered by oil spills. The draft action plan lays down several measures to reduce these risks, such as a common maritime surveillance system, joint training and exercises.

Better co-operation between customs and border police in the region would aim at reducing human and drug trafficking along the region's lengthy external borders.

"The EU should promote and support the development of regional approaches and co-operation to combat organised crime, particularly in border regions. The further refinement of cross-border co-operation structures in the Baltic Sea Region should greatly contribute to addressing the ‘security deficits' in the region," the draft action plan reads.

Cross-border 'macro-regions' unlikely to get own funding

Geographical 'macro-regions' around the Baltic Sea, along the Danube river or surrounding the Alps are unlikely to receive their own funding in the new EU budget from 2014, but should rather focus on spending existing money more efficiently, regional policy commissioner Johannes Hahn said Tuesday.

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