President Ilves at the Ministerial conference on the EU Baltic Sea Strategy in Stockholm, Sweden
Archived Articles 18 Sep 2009  EWR
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18 Sep 2009

[Watch the video of the speech here ]

I am more than pleased to speak here today at this gathering devoted to the Baltic Sea Strategy, especially because aside from its subject matter, which should be close to the hearts of many, the Strategy also represents a new and to my mind a genuinely positive development in EU policy formation.

Since the enlargement of 2004, the Baltic Sea has been for all intents and purposes an internal lake of the Union, a new Mare Nostrum, our sea, as the Romans called the Mediterranean. True, a relatively small part of the Baltic Sea littoral is not in the EU, the end of the Gulf of Finland and the exclave of Kaliningrad, which moreover produces a disproportionate amount of the pollution threatening our sea.

We hear often that Europe must be brought closer to the citizen, as it indeed should be. While a number of EU policies have done much to make life for the ordinary citizen – think of the Schengen Agreement – then the Baltic Sea Strategy, believe it or not, is actually the first EU strategy to have originated in the European Parliament. That is to say, it is the first EU policy initiative to get its start from those people democratically and directly elected by the citizens of the European Union.

But to the issue at hand. The European Union has a number of regional policy initiatives: the Mediterranean Union, the Barcelona Process, the Northern Dimension, the Eastern Partnership. The EU also has a number of policies for member states, which apply for some but not all members. The Euro, the aforementioned Schengen agreement and the less well known Prüm agreement come first to mind. The regional policy initiatives as a rule are focussed first and foremost on external policy, the intra-European policies are more issue-oriented: monetary, free-movement, crime and terrorism prevention.

The Baltic Sea strategy is neither a regional foreign policy based initiative nor single sectoral policy delimited project.

It is a macro-regional initiative meant first and foremost for states of the EU that want to foster stronger and more open ties within an EU region.

The Baltic Sea Strategy has many objectives, but I would try to boil them down into three goals.

To begin with, the Baltic Sea Strategy has a fairly obvious objective: to improve the health of the Baltic Sea itself, the body of water that so long divided us and today should instead unite us. Given our strong economic, cultural and social dependence on our common sea, the largest European lake, ensuring its health is of paramount importance to all citizens in Northern Europe.

The Baltic Sea today is perhaps the most polluted sea on the planet. It is the shallowest, with an average depth of slightly more than 50 meters, and the slowest circulating; it takes about thirty years for a complete of change in the water.

With most of the littoral now in the EU, I am today far more optimistic, now that unhealthy political borders have been attenuated and environmental co-operation dramatically de-politicised. With the adoption and implementation of uniform EU environmental standards among EU Baltic littoral states, major steps have been taken in improving the quality of the sea, although it will take a long time for us to see genuine results. This is especially true because pollution from the Baltic catchment area that does not follow EU rules, including Belarus, continues to be a problem.

Yet we must face reality and admit that the deterioration of the quality of the sea, dead areas, eutrophication, the continued threat of a major disaster due to the ten-fold increase in oil tanker traffic in the past two decades as well as lack of clarity and the politicization of the Nord Stream Gas Pipeline issue all contribute to an increase in the probability of the most dire scenarios.

Clearly, the environment is the one aspect of the Baltic Sea Strategy that must include all relevant countries, that means all those whose rivers and streams ultimately end up emptying into the Baltic.

But the Baltic Sea Strategy from its earliest beginnings as a report to the Baltic Intergroup in the European Parliament was driven by a vision to increase the integration of the Europe Union members around the Baltic.

This brings me to the second impulse of the Strategy. The idea was and is to utilise, develop and enhance EU objectives, most importantly, the four freedoms – freedom movement of people, labour, capital and services in the region.

The four freedoms are enshrined in the treaty as lofty, ultimate goals of a more perfect union. We have made considerable progress in moving toward these goals at the level of directives applicable to and obligatory for all member states.

Yet we let our selves be deceived by these directives when we limit our possibilities by restricting ourselves to the lowest common denominator of what everyone agrees to.

We can and should agree to dismantle the secondary barriers we still maintain in the areas of the four freedoms.

Let me bring some examples. We have freedom of movement, but once we pass through borders that no longer have border police, everyday life remains complex. Consular red-tape remains Byzantine. For example a Finnish citizen living in Estonia had his car’s registration documentation stolen while visiting Finland. But he could not return to his Estonian home with his car. He had to travel without his car to Estonia, obtain the appropriate documentation from the Estonian automobile registry, translate that into Finnish, affirm it with an apostille and then present the translation and the apostille to both Estonian and Finnish authorities. All this between countries with electron signature laws, and recognized as the EU-s top e-government members.

In Sweden there are serious difficulties in official administrative bodies such as the health insurance, immigration department as well as banks recognising official documents from other EU members from around the Baltic Sea.

Analogous issues with alimony, child support payments, inheritances etc abound. All of this can be handled with appropriate agreements on mutual legal assistance.

In addition to red-tape issues involving citizens, we all have heard of numerous abound of difficulties in all Baltic littoral states for businesses from neighbouring EU countries. Difficulties that despite free movement of goods and capital, prevent both from moving across the borderless EU, stifle competition and raise the spectre of hidden protectionism. Enterprises from other EU countries are required to pay larger guarantees than local companies, different municipal fees are applied to companies from outside one’s own country. In one Scandinavian EU member state, bills paid with a credit card from another EU member state must pay a surcharge, domestic cards have no surcharge.

There are worse examples of the failure of the internal market and lack of equal treatment but cataloguing these would perhaps cause discomfort among some here. That is not the point.

The point is: living as we are at a time of economic difficulty, any hindrance to free enterprise means less economic growth and higher unemployment in our own countries.

The way out of these bureaucratic and administrative obstacles is to make one of the Baltic Sea Strategy’s goals the elimination of such barriers, first among ourselves, and if we succeed around the Mare Nostrum, then take our best practices to the rest of the Union.

More importantly, again in these times of economic difficulty, serious efforts in this area do not require additional funds, either from the national or the EU budget. The monies planned for the 2007-2013 financial perspective would remain untouched.

Moving beyond environmental and administrative issues, I would like to talk about what I think is the most promising and exciting aspect of the possibilities offered by the Baltic Sea Strategy: to create new synergies and forms of co-operation that would allow us to overcome the smallness of scale we encounter in much of the region.

Let’s face it, most of the EU countries around the Baltic are small. Even in the case of the largest EU member state, Germany, which borders on the Baltic, academic and scientific institutions as well as the backbone of its economy, the SME, are often Länder-based. In other words, we are small entities located around our common sea.

If we wish our universities, scientists and SMEs to survive and indeed thrive in a globalized world in which we are in competition with China, India and the United States, we must, I repeat, we must co-operate more effectively.

This means we need to have the courage to avoid duplication and stimulate the creation of centres of excellence. The money we use to build scientific laboratories at universities around the Baltic all too often results in identical facilities being built in Helsinki, Arhus, Gothenberg, Krakow and Tartu. Why? Why not instead use the same money to develop centres for different lines of research in specific places, allowing these same Helsinki, Gothenberg and Krakow laboratories deepen their own specialisation and hence do better research.

The model to use to increase our co-operation is not new. Indeed, we find it in the beginnings of the EU itself, in the original Coal and Steel community. The Community initially was planned precisely as a solution to unnecessary duplication and unhealthy, politically dangerous competition and protectionism in a Post-War Europe still struggling with reconstruction.

Today, we need not fear that coal and steel production competition might lead to a new war. But we do need to fear that our innovation and science, especially in our small countries will not keep pace with developments elsewhere. Or that our best and brightest scientists move to the U.S., where already some 80 percent of PhDs in the sciences are granted to people originally not from America.

As we face a changed and changing world, a globalised world, a more competitive world, we must find new solutions that will enable us to maintain our competitive edge and the European quality of life to which we have become accustomed. But to do that, we need to work to overcome those obstacles that have come to impede us, where running just to keep up leads to our falling behind.

We need to take the initiative. One of those initiatives, if we put our mind to it and if we find the political will to overcome all the obstacles that I realize still abound, is the Baltic Sea Strategy of the European Union.

Thank you.
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