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The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region: Linking the Regional with the EU Level

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 12:55

By Dr Tobias Etzold, Associate/Project leader – Nordic and Baltic Sea Region Studies, EU Integration Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

The launch of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) in 2009 has provided Baltic Sea co-operation with a much needed fresh impetus. Its implementation that started in early 2010 has made some progress so far. Although results are not too obvious, visible and tangible in all areas of the strategy (environment, economic development, accessibility and safety) as yet, at least in particular in environmental, economic and soft security related matters tangible project-based activities seem to be evolving.

Nonetheless, the need has been identified to render the strategy more effective and result-oriented for further attaining its objectives. To this end, objectives and funds of the strategy have to be better streamlined. Furthermore, the results of the strategy need to become more visible both at national and EU levels in order to maintain high-level political commitment. With these intentions in mind, an evaluation of the strategy has been conducted in 2011/12. Also the action plan that accompanies the strategy has been revised.

In the course of the strategy’s evaluation, the original four overall objectives of the strategy have been reduced to three: to save the sea, to connect the region and to increase prosperity. As, however, a large number of sub-objectives remain and the number of priority areas even rose from 15 to 17, it is doubtful whether the strategy will in practice become more focussed and more effective. The strategy’s scope is still fairly broad. The new action plan tries to handle almost every aspect of co-operation in the Baltic Sea region (BSR), while it does not fully answer the question concerning the strategy’s added value in all issue areas covered.

Concerning the strategy’s overall success and prospects, a general problem of wider BSR co-operation becomes obvious. On the one hand, the BSR bears a lot of potential for close co-operation in order to solve its problems and to make effective use of its opportunities. The region even has a potential to contribute to solving the EU’s current problems. Economically it is fairly stable and has come out of the economic crisis comparatively well. Therefore, the BSR could serve as a kind of role model for other European regions. However, while fairly strong on sub-national, local and civil society levels, it seems that the overall interest of most of the BSR countries’ central governments in the region and in strong and sustainable regional co-operation is not particularly intense despite this advantage. In times of the continuously lingering European sovereign debt crisis, the BSR, its problems, challenges and opportunities are by central governments often perceived as marginal and not as urgent priorities on the political agenda.

The agenda continuously tends to be dominated by crisis-management. The regional opportunities are not fully used. The obvious trend is that issues and political processes with a wider European/EU relevance prevail over regional issues. Therefore, a certain misbalance between the EU and regional levels in terms of funding, political commitment and prioritization has become apparent. It remains, for example, one of the EUSBSR’s major structural weaknesses that it still does not have its own budget line.

Effective and efficient Baltic Sea co-operation requires the input and the active involvement of the big and powerful countries of the region, most notably Germany. Germany has an important role to play in regional development and co-operation, not the least regarding the implementation of the strategy.

Due to its Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) Presidency in 2011/12, the region has been more present on Germany’s foreign policy agenda than usual. The other countries of the region have appreciated Germany’s active regional stance in this period. Germany did its part to revitalise the regional political dialogue to involve Russia in regional co-operation. But whether the German federal government will retain this active stance beyond its CBSS Presidency cannot be taken for granted.

However, it is in Germany’s own interest to remain active in the region and to develop a more sustainable and uniform policy towards the region. Germany and the other countries of the region share various political and economic interests and values. On that basis, they would be natural allies in a wider European context, provided Germany is ready to involve those countries in relevant political decision-making processes and to co-operate closely with them.

Generally, the countries around the Baltic Sea are in a good position to play a key role in generating growth and helping the continent return to a sustainable path through close co-operation. This actually would be a relevant part of European crisis management. That way, those two relevant processes, European crisis management and regional development, would sensibly be linked together.

Being able to do so, however, would require stronger political will, commitment, an even closer political and economic dialogue and co-operation and effective co-ordination of national, regional and EU policies. For such a purpose, a strategy with clear and feasible objectives, focussing on a manageable number of relevant items, could still be turned into a useful and valuable instrument. However, only if all of the involved countries are fully committed to the process and ready to make a substantial contribution, even in financial terms, could the implementation of the EUSBSR become a success and a role model for other European regions.

Tobias Etzold (PhD) is a research associate and project leader at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), working on Northern European and Baltic Sea Region affairs.