Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity to attend the 25th Anniversary Seminar of the Pan-European Institute and to share with you my thinking on the Future of the Baltic Sea Region. Which region could be more meaningful and of interest to us than the region that we ourselves are an integral part of.
The seminar is organised under the theme ”The Baltic Sea Region 2025” which implies that we would be here discussing how the Region is expected to look like in only 13 years from today. It may seem like a very short time but then again – if we look back at the Region, say some 20 years ago, we realize how rapidly major changes can take place. Let me therefore start by casting first a quick look backward and at where we are today before I begin to describe the issues that I find most significant for the future of the Baltic Sea Region.
Still some 20 years ago, before the Cold War period came to its end, the Baltic Sea was the borderline between two opposing systems. The Iron Curtain took the form of the Sea in our Region. Interaction across the Sea was very limited and took mainly place only insofar as it concerned countries that lay either on its Western or Eastern shores. The Region was characterized above all by political and military tension which undermined any genuine interaction and cooperation. The only exception to this rule was perhaps the founding of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission – commonly known as HELCOM. The HELCOM convention was signed already in 1974 by the – then seven – coastal Baltic Sea states and it entered into force in 1980.
The situation began to change quickly as soon as the political landscape in Europe was reshaped with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain. The vacuum of interaction and cooperation across the Baltic Sea was soon filled with new institutions and cooperation frameworks at various levels. To give a few examples: at the governmental level the Council of Baltic Sea States (CBSS) was founded in 1992, the parliamentarians established the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference (BSPC) in 1991, at the level of subregions we saw the birth of the Baltic Sea States Subregional Cooperation (BSSSC) in 1993, and the cities of the Region formed the Union of Baltic Cities (UBC) in 1991. As a similar development of new organisations and networks could be witnessed also in the private sector, the result is that today our region is characterized by a multitude of institutions also between chambers of commerce, trade unions, universities, cultural organisations etc.
Of course, another major boost that brought the countries of the Baltic Sea Region closer to each other was their accession to the European Union: Finland and Sweden in 1995 to be followed by Poland and the three Baltic states in 2004. As a result, eight of the nine Baltic Sea coastal countries became subject to the acquis communautaire integrating them with each other more tightly than ever before.
After our accession to the European Union we in Finland felt a need to draw the Union’s attention to its Northern regions. To provide a framework for dialogue and concrete cooperation for the countries in the wider Baltic Sea Region, the concept of the Northern Dimension was introduced at Finnish initiative and its concrete content was outlined during our first EU Presidency in 1999. After the enlargement of the Union in 2004 the ND policy was revised during our second EU Presidency in 2006.
With all these developments we find ourselves today in a region which – in contrast to the vacuum like state during the Cold War years – may look like a jungle of actors and initiatives. On one hand it may seem problematic as with such a multitude of activities it may be impossible to simply get an overview of it – not to even mention trying to manage it. The danger with such a multifaceted set-up is that scarce resources may be wasted due to overlapping work and lack of coordination. On the other hand, the region’s manifold cooperation activities and numerous organisations can also be – and this is what I tend to believe in – a richness or an asset that gives us an advantage with respect to other competing regions. But the challenge in possessing an asset is that it only proves out to be valuable for the future if we know how to use it wisely.
A major move in this respect was the adoption of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region by the European Council in October 2009. This first so-called macroregional strategy of the EU represents a new way of intensifying coordination and cooperation across different levels sectors as well as between the countries of the Region. It aims at joining forces to tackle the common challenges. At the same time it also strives to take full advantage of the opportunities that working jointly in a coherent manner can bring to the citizens of this Region as well as to the EU as a whole. It builds upon the already existing versatile cooperation networks and with the existing resources has as its goal the maximisation of their outcome. It provides us with the vision how to enable the Baltic Sea Region to enjoy a sustainable environment and optimal economic and social development.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Whereas not a long time ago the Sea was dividing our Region, today we could describe it as the Sea of Cooperation. With such a developed cooperation framework and a jointly agreed approach to applying it our region stands in a good position to prepare itself for 2025 – and beyond. But it is not enough to have a toolbox and the know-how to use it to build a prosperous future. We must also have the necessary ingredients or materials or elements of which we can construct the success story for the future of the Region. Luckily, we have no shortage of such elements: our Region has a number of strengths that we can rely on when preparing ourselves for the future. Let me now highlight at least the ones that I deem to be the most crucial ones for our future success.
The most important one is – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – our expertise in the environmental field. Even if our Mare Nostrum deplorably is today one of the most polluted seas in the world we have all the reason to believe that the Sea can still be cleaned. Owing to extensive scientific research that has been conducted already over decades we have a fairly comprehensive understanding on the factors influencing negatively the state of the Sea as well as on ways and means to deal with them. Furthermore, we have a concrete plan on which measures and when need to be taken to restore the good ecological status of the Sea. I here refer to the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan that all the coastal countries have agreed to implement for their part. The good news also includes the fact that working for the restoration of the Baltic Sea is today not left only for the governments that often are inclined to think that in times of economic austerity environmental measures can be postponed. Non-governmental organisations are making a major contribution in involving also the private sector and individual citizens to join forces to make sure that we do not fail in achieving the final goal of the Baltic Sea Action Plan – a clean Baltic Sea by 2021.
Of course, cleaning the Sea is not always a painless process, as has for example become evident when the Baltic Sea countries prepare themselves to lower sulphur emissions from ships trafficking in the Sea. It will inevitably increase temporarily the transport costs in our Region but this is the price we finally have to pay to ensure sustainability of the marine traffic in our waters. We should not forget that fulfilling this requirement will create new business opportunities for our companies, not just additional costs. By being in the vanguard in applying cleaner technologies we will not only be in a stronger competitive position when sailing in other parts of the world but we will also be able to market our technologies and know-how as similar requirements will eventually have to be adopted elsewhere as well. The same of course applies to more or less all the measures that we decide to apply in cleaning the Baltic Sea.
Indeed, one of the strengths of our Region overall is our innovative capacity. Our region ranks high in international comparisons related to our education systems which provide for top-level researchers also in the future. In many parts of our region resources have been allocated for research, development and innovation purposes already long before such goals were set in the EU 2020 Strategy. Using this innovative capacity to tackle the challenges of sustainable development of our region will at the same time strengthen our competitive position in international markets.
Another common factor of the Baltic Sea Region countries is that our most valuable resource is our people. I think it is fair to say that all in all we have understood pretty well what kind of policy implications it means for us. I already mentioned our well-functioning education systems but in addition to that I wish to emphasize the role of the welfare state model that is widely applied in countries of this Region. One more essential element in this regard is our contract-based labour markets as well as the democratic decision making processes. These features are sometimes mistakenly interpreted to be weakening our economic potential but I firmly believe that they are crucial factors for a sustainable success of any economic system.
Certainly, to ensure a prosperous future for the Baltic Sea Region we must build upon improving the functioning of our internal market – the Baltic Sea Region marketplace. As is well-known there are still many shortcomings in the functioning of the internal market of the EU. Nothing prevents us, however, from making sure that it truly works at least in the Baltic Sea context. A lot of work has already been done for years to scrap all sorts of border barriers between the Nordic countries. I believe our Baltic Sea Region market could benefit a lot from the lessons learnt in the Nordic context. Russia is not part of the EU internal market but the prospects for increased trading with Russia are significantly improved by its membership in the WTO.
We are on the right track also in terms of connecting our region as one of the main objectives of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is defined. To make the Region truly the home market also for our SME’s – which play a major role in providing employment – we must continue improving accessibility across the Region by developing transport infrastructure linking us with each other. Let me just mention Rail Baltica as one good example of connecting the countries on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea more efficiently in the future. The same applies naturally to the production and distribution of energy within our Region. A well-functioning Baltic Sea Region energy market will be another valuable asset on which we can build our future success story.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am fully convinced that the Baltic Sea Region is equipped with everything that it takes to approach the future with confidence. It is definitely within our reach to make sure that the Baltic Sea Region will continue to be – and not only on the map – on top of Europe. Of course it will require from us all hard work and joint efforts. As long as we keep on building our future relying on and benefitting from our common values and positive attitudes – such as diligence, equality as well as ability and willingness to cooperate – we will not only succeed but also show a good model for the rest of Europe.