Region-building around the Baltic Rim is not simply proceeding along a continuous path: it has entered a new phase. The region’s agenda has become increasingly outwardly oriented, argues the author.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 7, 2011

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Region-building around the Baltic Rim is not simply proceeding along a continuous path: it has entered a new phase. The region’s agenda has become increasingly outwardly oriented. States have been under pressure to provide more space for non-governmental actors to define and influence policy with their project-centered approach. The regional agenda is no longer simply a platform of cooperation among various actors to address regional problems and to struggle against the region’s peripheral nature. It is now understood as a path to shaping Europe on a larger scale.

The trend towards regionalization has not been one of constant progress. Clearly the level of cooperation has had ups and downs. Nor is everything fine and well. Obviously, there have been too many declarations and too little progress, particularly in the environmental field. Solutions to the region’s problems as well as the use of its integrative potential have been hampered by poor organization, as the EU Commission and others have noted. The enthusiasm of the early years has clearly diminished and the mood of celebration that followed the end of the Cold War has worn thin. The enlargement of the EU no longer stimulates the variety of cooperative initiatives that the region saw in earlier years. Moreover, after more than a decade of impressive growth, the region has recently suffered economic decline. And the political focus has moved away from the Baltic Sea area somewhat, as intense interest is now increasingly being drawn towards the North Sea and Arctic regions.

This does not imply, however, that cooperation around the Baltic basin has come to a halt, nor that it goes on as mere routine.

On the contrary, some aspects of more traditional, inwardly oriented integration in the Baltic Sea area that began with the lifting of the Cold War overlay continue to unfold. The development of the Øresund region is a case in point. The region recently celebrated the achievements and experiences of the ten years since the construction and opening of the Øresund bridge. Cooperation in the area has in fact grown at such a pace that further infrastructure is needed, and so planning has begun for another bridge or tunnel across the Sound.

Plans for a similar fixed link between Denmark and Germany, across the Fehmarn Belt, are now focused on a tunnel to be precast and lowered to the bottom of the sea. Crucial decisions must still be taken before construction can start, but the progress already made testifies to good chances of an increasingly permanent link connecting northern Germany with the Nordic area within less than ten years.

The northeastern part of the region shows similar developments, including the newly inaugurated fast train connection, the “Allegro”, between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Furthermore, the idea of a tunnel connecting Helsinki and Tallinn — initially viewed as interesting but unrealistic — has recently attracted more serious attention. The number of nuclear plants will become so formidable in the coming years that the region will be able to export a considerable amount of electricity to other parts of Europe.

Yet another cooperative effort, albeit a controversial one and one that concerns transit through rather than cooperation within the region, is Nord Stream, a project to convey Russian gas to Germany and other consumers in Central Europe. More than half of the pipeline has already been lowered into the Baltic Sea, and the remaining work appears to be proceeding according to plan. In general, the Baltic Sea has become such an intense energy transit route that issues of safety and environmental cooperation have become imperative, necessitating far-reaching cooperation around the Baltic basin.

Finally, the Nordic Council of Ministers is in the process of building a Digital Baltic Ring, which will complement the infrastructure development that has been on the agenda for many years with the goal of integrating the member countries’ gas and electricity grids in a Baltic Energy Ring.

In fact, the Baltic Sea area has changed fundamentally during the past two decades. It has transformed itself into one of the most integrated regions in Europe. This achievement is all the more impressive since the driving logic of the countries involved used to be profoundly statist and security-oriented, leaving the region nearly void of any sense of community.

Obviously, the story is not simply one of linear progress. Some sensitive issues, such as the status of Kaliningrad, agreements on restored state borders, the construction of Nord Stream, and more generally the impact of the financial crisis must be tackled if cooperation is not to stagnate or decline. The overall trend has nonetheless been a positive one. What is most noteworthy, however, are the changes in the region’s political agenda. Cooperation has been framed in an altogether new way, and there appear to be further changes ahead.

One contentious issue that has now been settled, at least in principle, is the question whether the region’s policies are pursued by equal partners with equal say in the political agenda and decision-making. Russia in particular used to complain about being sidelined and discriminated against. The issue was addressed to a large extent in the late oughts by the renewed Northern Dimension. The revision of this document was performed in close consultation with Russia and defined a common policy framework between the EU, Iceland, Norway and Russia. Thus a novel interregional structure was created basded on the concept of a dialogue between equals. One implication of this is that the EU refrains from requesting assimilation — in other words, from pushing its usual “one size fits all” approach, consisting in the promotion of predefined norms under the banner of membership conditionality. This unusual abstention makes the region less hierarchical, and leaves more room for the non-EU partners in Europe’s North to introduce principles as well as departures from principles.

But how does the EU’s adoption of the Baltic Sea Strategy in 2009 harmonize with the endeavor to give all the parties in the region an equal voice? Does the rampant talk in the context of the strategy about the Baltic Sea as an “internal sea of the EU” imply discrimination against the non-EU partners? Not necessarily, for the non-EU partners see it as legitimate for the EU to develop a strategy of its own. Because the Union does not appear as a statelike entity engaged in drawing strict and divisive borders and pursuing policies of exclusion, the non-EU countries of the region actually seem to be at ease with the Union’s approach.

Russia, interestingly, is no exception. Under the principle of co-equality, the EU has not merely kept Russia informed during the preparatory phase of the strategy, but also consulted with and invited Russia to participate in various aspects of the implementation process. The challenges that Baltic Sea cooperation pose for Russia are obviously less capital, although Russia, with its Moscow-centered manner of pursuing cooperation, continues to have difficulty in joining in the mainly project-based and decentralized regionalization around the Baltic basin.

Another area of conflict that increasingly affects Baltic Sea cooperation is the relationship between governments and the various non-governmental actors, such as business, local agencies, and independent civil society organizations. The latter have gained considerably in weight, so that the formal, state-centered processes do not adequately reflect the real forces in the Baltic Sea community. The traditional preeminence of the states was already in decline because the political space in the region is far less controlled by high-level policies than it once was, so that there has been more room for non-state organizations to act. The burning question around the Baltic basin now is therefore how to make formal structures better reflect real conditions, and to strengthen the position of the non-governmental actors (which now include the EU) in the structures and institutions of Baltic Sea cooperation.

That this issue has been on the states’ agenda is evident, for example, in the reforms undertaken in the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS). One aim of these measures has been to reduce the emphasis on prestige and the flickering impact of the rotating presidency, making the CBSS both smaller and more focused and adaptable. Another objective has been to revitalize the organization by strengthening its competence and its ability to act and participate in various cooperative endeavors around the Baltic Sea area. The secretariat has been endowed with a broadened legal status which allows it to apply for funds from public-private sources for strategic projects, and to participate in broader cooperative contexts. The dominance of traditional interstate cooperation seems to be in decline, and the CBSS has been able to position itself better vis-à-vis other actors in Baltic Sea cooperation. The gap between formal and real structures has undoubtedly shrunk, but further measures are still needed before a true, functional balance can emerge.

Changes are also noticeable in the very essence of Baltic Sea cooperation. As the Cold War overlay was lifted, the initial focus was very much on various region-specific issues such as environmental concerns. Broader interests were soon added, however, which were related to centrality and marginality in the sphere of European politics. In this new view, the aim and importance of Baltic Sea cooperation was to bolster the region’s position in an EU-centered setting. The policies pursued were based on a view of the region as being “here” — presumably marginalized and peripheral — but escaping to “there”, i.e. towards a more central position.

Against this background, the Union’s recent adoption of the Baltic Sea Strategy clearly appears as a profound break with the earlier pattern and an invitation to rethink the region’s essential nature as well as its political aims. Importantly, the strategy aspires to create a pluralistic constellation instead of staying within the confines of a concentric one. A far more polycentric Europe appears to be in the making, and the new polycentrism includes the sense that there is more room for alternative constitutive stories to influence what Europe is about. As Brussels has become more active in the sphere of regionalist policy, it does not seem to insist, as it once did, on imposing strict stock conditions for the development of regionalization.

Thus the message embedded in the EU’s strategy is one that encourages the Baltic Sea area to continue precisely on the basis of its own indigenous logic. The region is not asked to conform to, emulate, and copy something that is already defined and dictated by Brussels. Instead, it is requested to pursue policies on its own terms. The strategy attributes considerable subjectivity to Baltic Sea region and casts it in the role of a creative and proactive force, one that calls its own tune. As a forerunner it is requested to take the lead rather than following, and other European macroregions are encouraged to emulate the Baltic region’s achievements. In the new narrative, the Baltic Sea now stands out as a leader, while the other macroregions — the Donau, the Alpine-Adriatic, the Black Sea, the Atlantic Arch and the North Atlantic — have been assigned the role of followers.

In this situation, the Baltic Sea region should not aspire to move from here to there. The argument is instead that it should remain precisely where it is. Rather than being encouraged to continue the perpetual process of becoming, the region is informed that it has already arrived. It has reached the status of an exemplary region, and being in the avant-garde may be rather confusing for the various actors in the region. This is because they do not grasp the change that has taken place, but continue, out of old habit, to see themselves as marginal, and hence they also view Baltic Sea cooperation as a way to work against their presumed peripherality in a concentric Europe.

On a larger scale, there are clear signs of a formative moment in Europe-making with far more emphasis on a decentralized Europe of macroregions than before. The constitutive discourse affecting the development of political space in Europe seems to be changing, and it positions the Baltic Sea area in a new context.  In fact, it is evidence of a second phase in the region’s development. Regionalization has become a form of Europe-making that allows the Baltic Sea area not only to remedy its marginality, but to also to influence and shape more broadly what Europe as an entity is about. The option is there, although it is constantly conditioned by developments such as the financial crisis, which tend to make the EU yearn again for the uniformity promised by conditionality, rather than tolerance of difference and plurality.

Obviously, the tectonic shifts in the sphere of Europe-making, with the epicenter now increasingly moving to the south and away from the north, compel various Baltic Sea actors to think not only in far broader, but also in quite different terms than before. This also entails, I would argue, forging a strategy for Northern Europe as a whole. The Baltic Sea region has to be explicitly connected to developments in the North Sea area and around the Arctic, under the umbrella provided by the Northern Dimension. This combination presents an opportunity for Northern Europe to be perceived as a hub connecting Europe with major parts of Asia. Developing such a strategy and implementing it, by drawing on the promises inherent in such factors as the North East passage, trans-Siberian railways, and intensified aviation, further broadens the perspectives of the Baltic Sea area as well. There are indeed good reasons to frame the Baltic basin in a new and broader manner so that the opportunities opening up can be fully utilized.

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