Conference reports The Northern Dimension beyond environmental cooperation
At a meeting on the topic of the Northern Dimension partnerships on October 17 at the Finnish embassy in Stockholm, the many ambassadors and other dignitaries present in the audience proved to be inspired partners in dialogue, providing both critical questions and analytical overviews of policy and funding instruments in the northern part of Europe.
Published on balticworlds.com on december 22, 2011
Some ambassadors are avid exponents of the culture of their native country. Others are rather cosmopolitan diplomats, world travelers building bridges across cultures. At a meeting on the topic of the Northern Dimension partnerships on October 17 at the Finnish embassy in Stockholm, the many ambassadors and other dignitaries present in the audience proved to be inspired partners in dialogue, providing both critical questions and analytical overviews of policy and funding instruments in the northern part of Europe.
Of all the different funding schemes and cooperation frameworks in Europe that are important for the Nordic-Baltic region, the Northern Dimension partnership is one of the more interesting. What is unusual about this initiative is that it puts Russia in the spotlight. It is essentially a policy framework involving Russia and the EU, along with Norway and Iceland, where all partners are equal. It was proposed by Finland in 1997, and the first action plan was approved in 2000. It also includes the so-called Arctic Window.
In his opening speech at the meeting, Paavo Lipponen, former Prime Minister of Finland, emphasized several times the importance of the funding mechanism of the Northern Dimension. No heavy administration is involved in the funding process, which is instead run through the European Investment Bank. This lack of bureaucratic processing, in his view, has made possible swift decisions and effective support of important projects.
Throughout its lifespan, the Northern Dimension has had a practical focus, subsidizing projects leading to tangible results, mainly in the area of environmental protection. An interesting illustration of the way different actors with policy mandates and available funds seek to be associated with successful projects is the St. Petersburg Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant. It was completed in 2005 and is capable of cleaning polluted water from more than 700,000 people. The wastewater plant was mentioned by several speakers at the meeting at the Finnish Embassy, as one example of a successful Northern Dimension project. Funding for this large-scale project came from a combination of grants, international loans, capital investments, and local financing, and out of the around 200 million euros, the Northern Dimension partnership supplied a modest 6 million euros, or 3% of the total. Of course, all entities supplying similar funds to the plant can claim it as an achievement of their own, thus making it also a successful SIDA, Nordic investment Bank, and FINNFUND project.
This model of patchwork funding is prevalent in many large-scale public-private projects in Europe today, and, judging from a recent summary (NDEP newsletter 26, 2011), the average contribution from Northern Dimension in the 23 funded environmental projects seems to be precisely around 3%.
As was pointed out at the meeting, there are a number of competing organizational forms, dealing with more or less the same questions, such as the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Dutch ambassador, Jan Edward Craanen, put the question bluntly: “I have been to all these meetings with different organizations”, he said, “but do we really need them all?” In his view, the focus of all these organizations on concrete practical results might lead to less efficient management, and overlapping areas of activity.
In reply to this, one of the speakers, Frank Belfrage, state secretary at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, pointed out that there have indeed been attempts at streamlining the forms of cooperation, in particular at one meeting held in St. Petersburg in 2008, but the consensus at the meeting was that the different organizations served different purposes and should continue to operate alongside each other.
A recent report (“Coherent Northern Dimension”, Northern Dimension Institute, 2011) also points out that each form of cooperation has been put into existence at the initiative of different backing countries. In the hypothetical case of a tabula rasa situation, the current structure would most likely not be the result, since it creates considerable difficulties in coordinating the multiple policy alternatives presented by the different existing organizational bodies with those of the EU.
What then, in this mixture of cooperative platforms, is the particular contribution of the Northern Dimension? Perhaps more important than the funding of projects and concrete results, which apparently could come from many other sources, is that the organizational form opens a direct window of mutual cooperation between Russia and the EU, since they act as equal partners. Russia is an important contributor to the Northern Dimension, but is also its main beneficiary. By investing in important projects in Russia together with Russian partners, the Northern Dimension is offering a model of how to tackle important challenges jointly. Reducing pollution in the Baltic Sea is an obvious task for such joint projects, and investments in new technology in Russia have great impact on the whole region.
The question is whether this advantage can be replicated when it comes to other action areas designated by the Northern Dimension, such as infrastructure, energy, public health, and culture. Whereas reducing pollution in the Baltic provides benefits to all participating countries, the positive results of cooperation on other issues may be more difficult to distribute evenly. Improving public health is important for each country, but what is the Russian interest in Finns living longer? And in the realm of energy, Russia is such a major player that joint initiatives may not have any impact at all, since available funds from the Northern Dimension are a drop in the bucket compared to the balance sheets of oil and gas companies. In fact, as the political conflicts around gas deliveries in Europe in 2008–2009 and the subsequent supply disruptions show, energy is a difficult area for cooperation, however important it may be, since dependence on Russian oil and gas is viewed warily by many buyer countries.
One sphere mentioned as a future area of cooperation is culture. It will be very interesting to see in the coming years how willing participating partners are to put money into a shared pool of resources, as well as what types of cultural projects get funded. Should the mathematics carry over from partnerships on the environment, the Northern Dimension would put 100 million euros into cultural projects with a total value of 3 billion euros. Three billion euros’ worth of culture: that would buy more than a few ballet companies or sketchpads for schools! But judging from the weak results at other ends, such as the Baltic Sea strategy of the EU – which, despite explicit mention of the need to create a cross-Baltic identity and establish a shared culture, has failed to produce substantial results – cultural initiatives will instead most likely be more small scale and directed at local projects.
Irrespective of such future challenges, there seems to be a clear interest from the Russian side in the Northern Dimension. Alexander Sternik, Deputy Director at the Department of European Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, emphasized that it is extremely important that the Northern Dimension continue to operate as an institution, and that it maintain a role on the macro-regional level. He also pointed to public health as an important area of future cooperation. His presentation, entitled “Equal Partnership – the Optimal Way Ahead for Russia-EU Cooperation”, explained Russian satisfaction with the model where it is being treated as the EU’s equal.
Another important factor, as Sten Luthman of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, is that the partnerships are not Nordic, but Northern. The US ambassador to Norway, Benson Whitney, was probably correct when in 2009, according to a Wikileaks document, he criticized the vision of Thorvald Stoltenberg of a mutual Nordic defense as “dreams in polar fog”. But the Northern Dimension partnerships show that a wider Northern cooperation in areas of societal importance, including Russia, is indeed possible. On this, the audience present at the Finnish embassy seemed to agree.