EU-Russian cooperation needed to stop Baltic Sea becoming ‘green soup’

Regional co-operation around the Baltic has helped spur trade growth, but more co-operation is needed, especially with Russia, if the region is to avoid the sea from becoming over-fished and polluted, argue two foreign ministers.


Erkki Tuomioja is the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Radosław Sikorski Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs.


“Peace is a natural effect of trade” – that is how we see it in the Mare Balticum.


The EU founding fathers fully realised the veracity of Montesquieu’s axiom. And so does the Baltic macro-region. Business in and around the Mare Balticum has remarkably spawned wealth in the area. 


The Baltic experiences some of the world’s heaviest maritime traffic. At any given time, there are about 2,000 ships navigating the sea. In 2011, the total loaded cargo in the Baltic Sea ports was almost 840 million tonnes. This constitutes about 10% of the global seaborne trade of loaded goods. 


This impressive volume is coupled with robust economic growth. The Baltic Sea Region EU states resisted tailspinning into a full-blown recession. As a region, we proved our resilience, displaying average economic growth substantially higher than the EU average, at 4.2% for the BSR and 1.5% for the EU in 2011. Finland is one of the few eurozone countries that have consistently met the debt and deficit criteria. With its sound fiscal policies and strict budget discipline, Poland has now become as much a part of Northern Europe as it has hitherto been of Central Europe. 


The potential is great. With Germany and Poland included in full, the region represents almost a third of the EU population and generates approximately 30% of EU GDP and trade.


But our heyday is still ahead of us. This is where the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, adopted some three years ago, comes in. It provides a framework for streamlining interactions between a multitude of existing institutions (e.g. Council of the Baltic Sea States, Northern Dimension, HELCOM). At the forthcoming Northern Dimension Ministerial meeting we should recommit to ever more intensive cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region. 


Just as we pioneered in making the Mare Balticum the first region in the world capable of real-time monitoring of ship traffic thanks to the HELCOM AIS system, we are now setting an example for EU macro-regional cooperation. The Baltic Sea Region showcases how states with divergent backgrounds and historical paths may capitalise on their strengths as well as shared values, and thrive. It may be viewed as a microcosm of the European project. 


A review of the Strategy, launched by the Polish Presidency in 2011, was a timely effort to give new impetus to the endeavour. The European Commission published a Communication on the Strategy on March 23, 2012. It refocused the EUSBSR by defining three overall objectives: to increase prosperity, to save the sea and to connect the region. 


To increase prosperity, we must remain competitive. In a knowledge-based economy, we must make the most of human capital. With Finland ranking 3rd and Poland 15th at literacy skills in the latest available OECD PISA study of 65 countries, we are pretty well placed, but we should not succumb to complacency. Innovation is vital to ensuring the region’s edge in the global economy. Countries should do their utmost to bring levels of R&D investment on a par with states at the vanguard – Sweden and Finland. Levelling disparities is paramount, because no deeper integration may be achieved without cohesion. 


Undeniably, heavy traffic in the Baltic Sea is a powerful driver of intra-regional trade.


However, it is also an environmental threat. The sheer number of vessels crossing the Baltic Sea and the hazardous materials that are being shipped (e.g. 170 million tonnes of oil annually) require efforts to enhance maritime safety.


Blue growth is as important as green growth. To save the sea we must safeguard the basin’s sustainable development. Aside from the risk of oil spills and accidents involving noxious substances, the Baltic Sea is already suffering from eutrophication. This is a fancy term to indicate a major disruption of the ecosystem resulting in increased numbers of toxic algal blooms, murky waters, oxygen depletion, and a lifeless sea bottom.


Swimming in a green soup and after the dip, having no choice but eat one kind of fish for lunch, because other species have become extinct, falls short of dream holidays in the Baltic Sea region.


That is why Finland and Poland have taken joint responsibility of leading the EUSBSR’s work, aimed at healing the Baltic Sea ecosystem by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus loads into the sea. Reaping the fruits of our current efforts may take a while, but the measures we’ve taken go a long way towards combatting eutrophication.


For instance, the European Parliament has already adopted an EU-wide ban on phosphates in detergents. There has also been an exchange of experiences and best practices among agricultural producers and waste-water treatment experts across the region.


Unlocking the region’s full potential entails fostering contacts at all levels: government, business, and civil society. For companies to thrive and NGOs to burgeon a certain degree of affinity is imperative. Connecting the region also implies not losing sight of the EU’s vicinity.


We must extend our invitation of cooperation, based on mutual trust, equality, and shared interests, to neighbouring countries, especially Russia – a major littoral actor. Extra-EU people-to-people contacts are facilitated thanks to the Polish-Russian agreement on the Local Border Traffic between north-eastern Poland and the Kaliningrad District. As for Finland, the country has been a forerunner in promoting mobility between the EU and Russia. Last year, Finland issued 1.2 million visas in Russia, over 80% being multiple entry. Greater mobility and fewer hindrances to travel will spur economic growth, promote mutual understanding and encourage common initiatives. It will benefit not just business, but also ordinary citizens, hopefully encouraging the modernisation process in Russia. 


Connecting the region means enhancing transportation and energy infrastructure as well.


For example, a high-speed rail linking key Baltic cities and running both ways every day seems like a splendid solution, benefitting both business and ordinary citizens. Rail Baltica is not a novel idea.


It has already been defined as one of the priority projects of the Trans-European Transport Network.


Now, it awaits its realisation.


Let’s be wise and brave enough to think macroregional in meeting the challenges of the future – without taboos and preconceptions  –  so that we are best equipped to solve fundamental problems regionally. Full steam ahead then! It is high time that our actions match the profuse declarations endorsing the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region."