Hans Brask

Hans Brask: Governance crisis in the Baltic Sea region cooperation?

in Debate, News

The European Commission will soon present a communication on governance in the Baltic Sea Region cooperation. This is a very timely initiative, since the regional cooperation calls for leadership and guidance at a time where the planned meeting of the CBSS Heads of Government in Turku has been cancelled due to the Ukraine/Crimean-crisis with Russia: Some Prime Ministers just do not want to meet with their Russian counterpart.

It is the first time in 22 years that a CBSS Ministerial is cancelled, and it raises serious questions about the future regional set-up: Some may ask: Do we need the CBSS any longer? How can CBSS influence cooperation with Russia? Can the EU or other institutions play a stronger role – and which ones?

Regional cooperation seems to have arrived at a critical moment, and it would have been perfect timing for Prime Ministers to meet to discuss all these issues in Turku and to give strong commitments to regional cooperation both inside the EU strategy and outside. Below I will present some of the dilemmas, hoping that you will consider your opinion and bring them to Turku 3-4 June.

The Finnish CBSS Presidency is inviting some ministers to come to Turku in June – efforts which BDF appreciates a lot – since we are working hard to present an attractive BDF Summit back-to-back together with the European Commission. In light of the present situation, the Turku event will undoubtedly be interesting and a discussion with all stakeholders is more relevant than ever.


In recent years, the CBSS Ministerial sessions have sometimes been criticized for being too limited and the main reason for attending was the useful bilateral meetings in the margins. This criticism has not been related to any specific CBSS Presidency – it is a systemic point. Even now when the context is far from dull, one may get the impression that the CBSS meeting is not wanted by all. This seems ironic as political dialogue and crisis management is especially called for in order to avoid the Black Sea security problems spilling over to the Baltic Sea.

It is well known that some Baltic Sea States have been critical towards the CBSS. Some have proposed to introduce EU coordination of the political positions before meeting with Russia in the council. In many ways a logical step not least in the given political context, but it does not make sense given the purpose of the organization. A political forum for inter-governmental cooperation with a majority of preplanned positions is perhaps not a real forum.

Others want to add more substance to the organization and some have proposed to discuss hard security matters. At a time when these issues have become real, the proponents of such a suggestion most likely prefer that these matters are dealt with by the designated organisations – not least in a NATO context.

The EU

The identity of CBSS is not an easy matter and has not been so since the EU strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) was adopted in 2009. How can an organization with Russia as a partner work seriously with EU internal projects? From the out-set Russia has been critical towards the EU’s regional strategy, but recently Russia has nonetheless been engaged in finding common grounds to build on.

The EU has its own regional cooperation instrument towards Russia – the Finnish driven Northern Dimension, which Russia appreciates as it is based upon equality. However, this set-up has been difficulty for Germany at times. This was clear when Germany had its CBSS Presidency during the 20th anniversary of the CBSS. For Germany, a founding member of CBSS, a better regional “cohesion” was a general objective of the German CBSS Presidency as having competing regional initiatives that deal with cooperation with Russia is out of place. To Germany this was “unordnung” and better regional “cohesion” was a general objective of the German CBSS Presidency.

The cohesion exercise ended up in very little, and we still have some of the basic problems in the Baltic Sea cooperation to deal with. However, somehow the Baltic Sea region with its many organisations and layers of governance and cooperation is able to produce results, which are admired by many other regions of Europe as exemplary. Still, the present political situation with Russia has highlighted the basic structural problem of the region.

A lot of dynamism in the regional cooperation was created with the adoption of the EUSBSR, but as the up-coming paper of the Commission will mostly likely tell – either explicitly or implicitly – the strategy is not without its own internal problems and dilemmas. Theses have real substance and deal with political ownership, leadership, commitment, funds and decision-making procedures.

Governance problems?

The European Commission finds it difficult to satisfy all the administrative tasks linked to the EUSBSR and the other macro-regional strategies in Europe that have followed. The administrative capacity is stretched to its limits and the Commission wants Member States to take on greater responsibility. Some limited steps in this direction have been taken, but still the Commission seems disappointed that the Member States do not use more administrative capacity on the strategy’s different roles and responsibilities that have multiplied (National contact points, Priority area coordinators, Horizontal Action Leaders, flagship project leaders).

According to close sources, the Commission, DG Regio is disappointed that Member States are not allocating structural funds to the implementation of the EUSBSR objectives within the partnership programmes, let alone spending their own resources on cross-border cooperation. This casts real doubts about the commitment of Member States, which is sad.

What is also worrying is that some Member States’ representatives are privately saying that the cooperation within the EUSBSR is becoming too bureaucratic – too many coordinating demands and too little action. Some consider giving up on their responsibilities and taking easier project initiatives outside the strategy (also BDF has to reconsider its role as a horizontal action leader when there are no funds to support this task). Such problems need to be addressed and hopefully the proposed governance discussion can become open and frank. Otherwise, the results achieved so far can wither away.

It cannot come as a surprise that there are some coordination demands and governance problems when the outset of the EUSBSR meant no new institutions, no new funds and no new legislation – the three no’s. We have to do better with the given resources and administration capacity – in other words find new ways. Last year BDF gave its Baltic Sea Award to Carl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski because they took new initiatives to expand regional cooperation and dialogue with partners close to the Baltic Sea. We need new ideas and new ways forward.

Avoid falling over

We seem to have arrived at a critical moment and it would have been perfect timing for Prime Ministers to discuss all these issues in Turku. Some are saying that further sanctions will be imposed towards Russia if the situation does not de-escalate: How would that influence the regional economy and business relations? It is important that the present challenges are addressed and that the views of stakeholders are taken into account.

Regional cooperation is like driving a bike: If you stand still, you will fall over. At the BDF Summit in Turku we will not fall over, but present new ideas and give ours to create the momentum that is needed. In Turku BDF will present four new reports that can give inspiration to the ride: First and foremost, State of the Region report on regional competitiveness, second the political state of the region report on the key political conflicts, third a report covering ICT and regional integration for SMEs, and fourth a report on water stewardship with input from among others business.

We have to communicate the new ideas to Prime Ministers and Finnish Prime Minister Katainen will help us in this endeavor. We are very glad to receive him in Turku and hopefully other Prime Ministers will follow him as well. Those present in Turku will benefit from interesting BDF-discussions on the dilemmas of governance in the Baltic Sea Region and on cooperation with Russia. We look forward to seeing you and getting your input!

Hans Brask
Baltic Development Forum

вакуумная помпа