Baltic Sea Strategy - European Flagship Project
Arvamus 06 Mar 2011  EWR
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Marko Mihkelson
The idea of developing a separate strategy for strengthening the cooperation of the EU Member States around the Baltic Sea found its way to the Riigikogu almost immediately after its birth in the European Parliament. That was 4 years ago, coinciding with the new parliamentary term. From that moment, the European Union Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu has taken upon itself to keep a close eye on developments that affect the strategy.

This has meant hearing out the ministries during the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the strategy, as well as in connection with the implementation of the strategy action plan. The Riigikogu has kept the issue going in an attempt to keep the faith in the functioning of the strategy, by supporting the ministries and motivating all parties to actively participate in the projects of the strategy. I am sure that newly elected parliament will keep Baltic Sea Strategy high up in its agenda.

The European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is a framework allowing Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Estonia to cooperate in improving the visibility and competitiveness of the region within the European Union.

Of course, the modern Baltic Sea Strategy is not completely as we dared to dream 4 years ago. More than anything, it is a compromise and Estonia has demonstrated its good skills in adapting to the proposed compromise and in accepting it. We must of course contribute to projects that are important to other countries around the Baltic Sea, so that the others would contribute to the issues important to us.

Preparing for the 2007 negotiations, we hoped that the Baltic Sea Strategy would prove a strong framework of cooperation where the participating countries would all contribute to carrying out a small number of specific projects of common interest to the region and to securing EU funding. However, this agreement fell victim to the economic crisis as well as to the EU budgetary framework until the year 2013. It simply seemed too much of a luxury to demand a separate budget for the Strategy, and the debate over the priority ranking of projects threatened to become too fiery for our predominantly Nordic mindset.

It made more sense to concentrate on the completion of the ongoing projects. It seemed more reasonable to compile an overview of everything going on in the region. Yet we must admit today that this strategy launching phase is soon over.

In 2011 we will be facing the negotiations for a new budgetary framework and the final report of the first action plan of the Baltic Sea Strategy. Since the European Commission has been extremely curt on macro-region strategies in its Cohesion Policy reform announcement, it will be even more exciting to read the ideas of the Commission on the pages of the final report. However, it is nice to conclude even as we speak that better focus is increasingly brought up in discussions on the Cohesion Policy reform.

The time is nearing to reopen negotiations and come to an agreement within the region on the activities that merit common contribution with the help of the EU structural funds, and an agreement on which activities merit the continuation of our contribution. Such large scale projects of common interest which are coordinated at the national level could form the first pillar of the next action plan of the Baltic Sea Strategy. The European Commission should once again assume a supervising and supporting role, so that all the Member States would honour their responsibilities.

Direction of this process will surely be a challenge for Estonia. After all, we have seen the Baltic Sea Strategy as one of our priorities in the European Union. With the potential of all the eight states, our region has every chance of speedily implementing new EU cooperation mechanisms and be truly one of engines for new growth in European Union.

But the Baltic Sea Strategy also has a second pillar which should be carried over to the next financial perspective. I am talking about the Baltic Sea Region Programme and projects that ensure the involvement of hugely differing parties, from the public as well as the private sector, in working towards the objectives of the Strategy.

After all, one of the ideas behind the Baltic Sea Strategy was to improve cooperation between the local populations, companies, researchers, officials, representatives of various interest groups and politicians in order to improve the underused common potential and to lose the scepticism about cross-border activities. This gives the universities, local governments, NGOs and many other actors the chance to participate in the Baltic Sea Strategy through the public application round.

Estonia has already quietly started to prepare for its EU presidency in the first half of 2018. Although the world is in constant change, it is always good to focus on a more long term vision and to set objectives. We should already be concentrating on bringing issues of importance to us in the EU limelight and on ensuring their long term development. One of such issues could be the strengthening of cooperation between the Baltic Sea countries within the European Union. Looking beyond the next financial perspective, but also in its context, I hazard to propose three specific paths that should be continued vigorously within the framework of the Baltic Sea Strategy action plans.

The first is the strengthening of cooperation for responding to accidents on the Baltic Sea – with the goal of organising, during Estonia’s presidency, an environmental catastrophe joint training exercise that involves all the Baltic Sea countries.

The second entails continuing the cooperation in the spatial planning of the Baltic Sea. By Estonia’s presidency at the latest, we should arrive at a common understanding on the principles of spatial planning of the Baltic Sea. The Tallinn European Council during Estonia’s presidency would offer a suitable opportunity for our Prime Minister to distribute to his colleagues a map that shows the spatial planning of the Baltic Sea. This should lay out all marine protected areas, possible locations for wind farms, gas pipelines, communication cables, and motorways of the sea.

The third is the development of a common internal market in the region. This is also a political field that Estonia is responsible for. There is a lot of talk today about the internal market falling short of its functional potential. We keep hearing about bureaucratic market barriers. Integration fatigue and disappointment in internal market are brought up. This does not make a pleasant hearing – we could all gain from an internal market. We should continue in the direction of compiling a list of all the market barriers found in the region and work on eliminating these in the context of specific steps and deadlines. Why not create a functioning market barriers forum on the example of the Nordic Council of Ministers?

It goes without saying that all this requires strong efforts, starting from today. The Baltic Sea Strategy must be kept in constant movement, be replenished with new ideas. In the future, in thirty years time, we might be able to talk about a European Union regional policy which allocates cohesion resources to macro-regional strategies and relevant action plans.

I thank all the ministries who have done an excellent job in launching the strategy. I wish you all a good conference! Thank you!
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([/i]This is the opening address delivered March 2nd in Tallinn at the conference "The Baltic Sea Strategy from a national perspective - Estonia"[/i]
 
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