Editor's note

International Internet Magazine. Baltic States news & analytics Tuesday, 17.09.2019, 01:49

Baltics’ regions: lessons from EUSBSR

Eugene Eteris, European Studies Faculty, RSU, BC International Editor, Copenhagen, 19.06.2019.Print version

Regional and local authorities in the Baltic Sea regions are facing hard but promising and interesting time both for decision makers and citizens. The question is, whether regional politicians are up to these changes to deal properly with the modern challenges?

Regional authorities around the Baltic Sea region are celebrating these days a decade of intensive and successful macro-regional cooperation. However, numerous modern challenges require more active and rigorous actions which shall be taken seriously both by the EU, member states and the regions’ decision makers.   


The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) has been the first among the European states in intensifying the local communities’ efforts to resolve issues of common interest. The Baltic Sea region has enormous vitality and potentials for the whole EU: it is the place for about 80 million inhabitants, it “unites” eight EU states –Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany (four northern territories), Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden; besides, Norway and Russian Federation participate.  


Common interests among the EU regions (so-called sub-regional cooperation) are numerous, e.g. the region has about 8 thousand kilometers of national coastlines and the sea to be protected. The Baltic Sea region’s strategy, EUSBSR has had 3 main objectives (“save the sea”, “connect the region” and “increase prosperity”), about a dozen sub-objectives, 13 policy areas (Pas) and 4 horizontal actions (HAs). Through the decade of actions, 77 projects have been completed and 94 are in the implementation stages.


More on the EUSBSR Forum-2019 in: Eteris E. Comprehensive EU strategy to target urgent regional challenges. In: http://www.baltic-course.com/eng/modern_eu/?doc=149719&ins_print.   

EUSBSR’s lessons

The efficiency of the macro-regional cooperation and the dichotomy of national-EU competences have been at the attention of the EU institutions since 2000s. The idea of the “Baltic Europe” has been for the first time revealed to the European Parliament in 2006; already in June 2009 the strategy and the action plan (the first macro-regional strategy in the EU) were endorsed by the European Council with the final adoption in October 2009. 

Interesting enough, already in 2014 the Commission published a report on the improvements in the governance for the macro-regional strategies. For example, “smart” and “green” growth issues (the items of the EUSBSR Copenhagen-2012 forum), which were in the EU priorities have been adopted as the BSR’ developmental goals since 2014. Hence, the EUSBSR’s forums have been constantly following the main EU policy’s guidelines: e.g. digital issues were in the work of Tallinn-2018 forum, as well as the present Gdansk forum with the issues of sharing and circular economy, which are also among the headlines of the European policy’s directions.  

Veronika Jȯźwiak and Kinga Raś from the Polish Institute of International Affairs are definitely right saying that “cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region, BSR is, in principle, intergovernmental”: the member states are responsible in implementing the EUSBSR objectives; however “the overall success of the strategy depends to a large extent on the member states”. 

See more in: Better together: 10 years EUSBSR, the booklet published by the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry for the Gdansk Forum.  

The EUSBSR has a multi-level governance structure: the states have national coordinators (in policy areas and in horizontal actions), which are linked to High Level Group consisting of senior civil servants from the states (formulating strategy’s policy), whereas the EU monitors the strategy and action plans’ implementation. 

More on the Forum in: Eteris E. Circular economy’s priority in the 10th EUSBSR Forum. 15.06.2019. In: http://www.baltic-course.com/eng/modern_eu/?doc=149881&ins_print. 

The EUSBSR-2019 has been dealing with the sub-regional perspectives, which are having a vital importance for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Thus, describing regional perspective ideas, J.-P. Halkin (from macro-regions and interregional cooperating unit, D.1 in the DG Regio) mentioned the following most important directions in the Baltic Sea states macro-regional cooperation: innovations, resource efficiency, closer connections among the regions, attention to the European Semester issues*), more efficient use of regional funds, as well as Interreg issues, etc. 

*) On the latest Semester issues, see: Eteris E. “Spring-2019: European economy’s account”, in: 
http://www.baltic-course.com/eng/modern_eu/?doc=149746&ins_print

Climate change, circular economy and SDGs (to name a few) are presently in the main stream of  policy agenda in the EU, the member states, and are supposed to be as important in the regional governance. So far, these issues are only on the initial stage in the EUSBSR and member states’ strategies! 

However, it is not that politicians are not aware of the existing challenges and problems; there are difficulties in “transforming” these issues into economic development and entrepreneurship, i.e. putting them “down to earth”. Quite obvious that not all 17 SDGs will play a vital role in regional issues, thus the regional and local strategies are forced to figure out the priorities and concrete implementation process; most important it seems are the sustainability issues of which the circular and bio-economy are only composite parts, though quite important. 

The Baltic Sea region’s politicians have to be ambitious and set a goal, e.g. “Baltic Sea as a region devoted to SDGs”, or “CO2 neutral BSR to 2050”, etc.! But it’s easy to say than implement: such ambitious goals have to be economically feasible for SMEs to follow the SDGs, the move which needs a strong governments’ impetus with specific incentives. This kind of issues shall be on the agendas in the next EUSBSR forums, e.g. formulating a model for an optimal SDGs implementation in the Baltic Sea sub-regional cooperation.       

Regions for changes

According to the EU regional policy’s officials, the Baltic States are facing a “profound change” in the BSR governance, based on “closer cooperation, good action plans and communication”; in Mr. Halkin’s words, it is about “a new narrative for the region”.


Strikingly enough, these “changes” have not been fully integrated into the modern global and European trends, e.g. sustainability, bio- and circular-economy, digitalisation and scientific innovations, to name a few.


It is not enough just to convene a meeting on circular economy issues; it will be more efficient to formulate optimal action plans for the regions and local communities in circular and bio-economies’ practical implementation.  

   

The Forum’s organizers have voiced their own vision with two perspective strategy’s scenarios: a) consolidation of the existing activities, and b) radical strategy’s overhaul with the focus on regional main problems (which are not covered in sufficient way by the EU cohesion and regional policies). However, these options have not been under discussion in the Forum…    

 

It seems that the sub-regional concept in the EU regional policy will grow and expand; however, only time will show whether the “macro-regional” approach to national political economies will take a serious attention in the regional SMEs. Thus, the new European Commission’s college, which will make a final EU plan for the coming seven years budget shall give these points a necessary attention. For example, the digital economy and society’s issues are becoming of vital importance for the three Baltic States, which they couldn’t resolve without common approaches and mutual support. 


On DESI see: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/desi; on the Digital Single Market in Latvia in: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/scoreboard/latvia 

 

From a strictly logistics’ point, an efficient sub-regional cooperation in BSR is balancing between the national political economy’s guidance and that of the regional/local planning; there can’t be both” less activities in the former, more active the latter! Probably this time - due to the Baltic States closer adherence to the global and European trends (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs and digitalisation) – and apparent lack of dynamics at the “central levels”- the sub-regional activity will flourish.      


We have to keep in mind that from strictly governance point, besides the EUSBSR there are several other organisations operating at the BSR’s macro-regional level: e.g. Council of the Baltic Sea States, HELCOM or Vision and Strategies around the Baltic Sea (VASAB), to name a few; all that is making the EUSBSR management and guidance rather complicated.


The Gdansk-2019 forum has shown a lack of political willingness from the heads of state and government to engage in macro-regional cooperation: quite a few ministers (Latvia was represented by the Minister of Economic Affairs), national leaders and/or high EU officials have shown up; besides, there hasn’t been a holistic debate on perspective macro-regional initiatives.

 

 





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