The representatives of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum presented their recommendations, followed by an informative panel discussion on Boosting Democratic Resilience and Promoting Digital Resilience. In the next session, the conference investigated Strengthening the Resilience of Maritime Ecosystems.
Introductory remarks followed by a panel discussion on the topic of „Boosting democratic resilience and promoting digital resilience“
Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson and Mr Wille Valve co-chaired this session. Ms Friðriksson said as an introduction that value-based democracy had been under threat in recent years, not least through the rise of digital technology.
Presentation by Ms Silva Laure and Mr Shahin Khosravi, representing the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
Ms Silva Laure and Mr Shahin Khosrav explained that the youths had produced eight unanimous recommendations on four topics. On improving digital resilience, they recommended prohibition of personal mass profiling based on data as far as these profiles allowed targeted advertising for disinformation; the parliaments should promote digital literacy education for all age groups regarding data privacy and supporting innovations to tackle disinformation. On youth participation, they called for youth involvement in political decision-making and youth civic engagement through increased political literacy; more platforms for young people with decision-making power and legally guarantee youth councils to advise local and regional governments on policies relevant to young people. Regarding social division and polarisation, they recommended developing and implementing civic education programmes and civil society initiatives to raise awareness of the dangers of extremism to democracy, including recruiting strategies; encouraging cross-border exchange programmes for citizens of all ages and diverse backgrounds focused on bridging societal division and combating extremism. To sustain faith in democratic institutions, they called for a guarantee on inclusive governance by including social groups affected by structural inequality in the formation of policies and establishing mechanisms for participatory budgeting for more equitable resource distribution and community empowerment; encouraging workers to join unions by promoting awareness and strengthening the institutional framework of the workers’ unions. In conclusion, the representatives also recommended that the BSPC implement a follow-up and monitoring process to track the progress of the recommendations presented here at the German Bundestag. Ms Laure called on the BSPC to involve youth participation at all working-level meetings of the working group on all policy areas. Mr Khosravi insisted that youth involvement could not be tokenism or “youth washing”; they had to be understood as active agents of policy making beyond so-called youth issues.
Speech by Mr Stefan Seidler, independent Member of the German Bundestag for the South-Schleswigian Voter’s Association, Member of the Committee on Internal Affairs and Community
Mr Stefan Seidler favoured the Nordic and Baltic forward-looking approaches to digitalisation. He noted that his parliamentary mandate marked the first time in sixty years that the Danish minority was represented in the German Bundestag. Subtle changes marked the shifts in the digital political landscape; the first to be targeted – and thus to learn – were minorities, as also evidenced by the Uighur situation in China or the LGBTQI+ community in Europe. The current major threat in the digital realm was Russia, finding many people in the West willing to believe their disinformation. He did not see the solution in technical or legal measures but rather in education, through strengthening media literacy in schools. Again, he pointed to the Nordic countries as best practice examples.
Speech by Mr Paul Nemitz, Principal Advisor of the European Commission
Although he agreed that education and boosting the civil society were important, Mr Paul Nemitz underlined that common rules were necessary as a framework for the digital world. The social media platforms were run by huge companies against whose power single countries could not stand. Common rules for the European Union could tie these firms into the engagement for democracy, unlike the autocratic forces of Russia and China. The data protection law of the GDPR was crucial for instance in the curtailing of AI. As such, he appreciated the youth representatives’ first recommendation to prohibit mass profiles as these constituted comprehensive surveillance that could be used to influence or even blackmail individuals. The Digital Services Act (DSA) for instance forbade self-preference. It also obliged major platforms to ensure that they were not a breeding ground for illegal content but also such undermining democratic values, even if that was legal. Structural measures had to be established to that goal. Currently, audits were started to review these measures. This was important, Mr Nemitz underlined, as these networks were competing with the free press. All media in Europe now were inherently obliged to prevent anti-democratic or harassing content, as opposed to the previous notice-and-take-down procedure. The democratic state could not stand idly by while the free press and journalists were wiped out. Thus, a level playing field for journalism in this competition had to be ensured. Moreover, participation in democratic decisions on all levels had to be boosted. A democracy had to be able to defend itself against its enemies.
Speech by Mr Otto Tabuns, Director of the Baltic Security Foundation
Mr Otto Tabuns saw the Baltic Sea region as a key area in the EU, from the point of view of security but also as a gateway to the Arctic. He also highlighted democracy and freedom as aspects other countries were lacking, such as North Korea or Russia, which made the latter attack these. China, furthermore, sought technological inroads to bolster its power and influence. In the area of defence, he called for better integration on a multi-national level, including both defensive and offensive cyber capabilities. For the environment, a secure renewable energy supply was vital. Moreover, vital services such as finances and transport but also the internet had to be integrated and secured. Regarding societal security and education, he bemoaned the rapid changes accompanying the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, arguing for vertical, multi-lateral, and cross-border cooperation. Several processes had to be pursued at the same time. Mr Tabuns also raised the threat of personal profiles gathered by China through various means, among them TikTok, for surveillance and control purposes.
Ms Anna Kassautzki moderated the following panel debate. In the quest to make the internet safer, she raised the concern over the poor working conditions of content moderators in social media companies – the people who had to review the reported hate speech or otherwise disturbing content. Despite their traumatising job, they did not have recourse to psychological support. She started off the debate by pointing to creating spaces safe from disinformation campaigns.
Mr Paul Nemitz saw a number of things that had to be in done in parallel to secure such spaces as the foundation of democracy. The Council for the European Public Space sought to bring together all TV news from all member states onto one platform with automatic translation; the goal was to provide comparatively safe sources of information which had previously been blocked by the language barrier. Considering the strict controls of public news in Hungary and Poland, this contributed to domestic plurality of information. In addition, fake news had to be refuted. He also saw the vigorous enforcing of the structural requirements of the DSA as vital.
Ms Anna Kassautzki remarked that people were starting to distrust the media but blindly trust social media comments. As such, she asked how trust in researched news and media literacy could be strengthened.
Mr Stefan Seidler agreed that cross-border pluralism was necessary. He favoured education on digital literacy here, again praising the Nordic countries. More money had to be invested. As for the content moderators, he believed that those trained to review contents in the public sphere could be hired for more money by the large companies.
Ms Silva Lare interjected that young people had contributed a project on tackling disinformation to the CBSS Ministerial Meeting. Steps were taken by the youth for the youth. There did not have to be a state-directed solution.
Mr Shahin Khosravi felt that trust was connected to a feeling of being included in society. As good as some strategies were, they rarely reached the local level. All democratic forces had to be united towards this goal. Furthermore, there had to be local-level programmes to include older people.
Ms Anna Kassautzki concurred that a strong civil society was the backbone of a strong democracy where all could participate, even though they might be part of a minority or immigrants. She pointed to the example of Twitter/X under Elon Musk’s ownership relaxing control: The first ones to leave were the minority groups. Indeed, these private companies had to be held accountable, with the European level approaches.
Mr Otto Tabuns considered the fundamental differences regarding freedom of speech between the United States – where it was absolute – and Europe – where it was regulated – but also China – where it was non-existent. Primarily, research skills and academic honesty had to be taught at all levels, including the most basic ones. Debate skills were equally lacking. He believed that these skills in young people would make Europe more competitive in an economic sense.
Mr Paul Nemitz vehemently disagreed with the perception that Europe was less free in terms of speech than the USA. The reality was that regulation maintained the freedom of speech through the absence of harassment, allowing more people to join in the discussion – especially minorities. American discourse lacked exactly that regulatory aspect introduced in Europe as a result of war and fascism.
The debate was opened to the plenary at this point.
Ms Bryndís Haraldsdóttir underlined Iceland’s high esteem for the BSPC as a unique forum for like-minded, mutual understanding in the region, after the Russian attack. The human suffering in Ukraine could not be ignored. Iceland was extremely concerned about sexual violence perpetrated by Russian troops. Furthermore, human trafficking exploiting women and children had to be combated with all means, including the virtual space. Democratic values, human rights, and the rule of law had to be defended vigorously, for everyone, irrespective of who they were, their gender, or how they self-identified.
Mr Staffan Eklöf noted that democracy was the sibling of listening and reflection. Rigidity and prejudice stood in the way of the ongoing process of democracy. Trust, furthermore, had to be earned. Accordingly, personal integrity was the biggest asset in fighting authoritarian regimes. He called on the attendees to listen, to discuss politely, to think critically, and to analyse one’s own thoughts.
Mr Arturs Pīlācis, BSPYF, warned of changes in society that contradicted common values in the Baltic Sea region. This applied to, among others, censorship, human rights, freedoms. Good intentions did not ensure good measures, and it was necessary to listen to the people on the opposite political side to chart a good course.
Ms Amani Mahdi Basita Al-Mehsen, BSPYF, noted how deeply the situation in the world was reflected in young people and how strong their passion for democratic and just policies was. She called for a continued resilience in the here and now, not just put off into the future, choosing to do not what was easy but what was right. Listening mattered, for silence was toxic.
Mr Martin Johnsen, BSPYF, stressed the value of youth participation, envisioning institutions to bring youth voices into political decision-making and shaping the future they wanted to live in. A renaissance of youth democracy was needed in his view, as young people were disillusioned for not being included.
Mr Johannes-Emmanuel Allas, BSPYF, agreed with youth organisations having to be included in all policy decisions. Regarding digital resilience, he referenced the question of creating a proprietary platform in, e.g., Europe or continuing to work with the giant companies headquartered in the US.
Mr Kaspars Briškens himself had been a youth parliamentarian 25 years earlier when all the same topics had been discussed – with the exception of digital resilience. Youth participation had been demanded with the same kind of dynamism and enthusiasm. He emphasised three key areas for youth participation: One was youth unemployment, the other was housing availability, and the third was inclusive societies where everyone could prosper regardless of their background.
Ms Hanna Westerén was cheered by the youth representatives call for union involvement, in light of the lack of engagement by young people in political parties or unions in Sweden. A resilient and sustainable future required the people to facilitate participation in such institutions.
Mr Tom Matzen, BSPYF, interpreted resilience as giving the tools to do so to the people. Yet there had to be a stop sign to cease spreading hatred and a go sign to cooperate more strongly.
Mr Johannes Schraps summarised the preceding statements as proof of how many aspects had to be kept in mind to promote digital resilience and to strengthen democracy. A balance had to be struck between curtailing hate speech but also protecting the freedom of expression. This was a difficult task which he likened to a ride on a razor blade. He applauded that so many representatives of the youth forum had found the courage to take the floor and speak in this plenary hall. Equally, he appreciated that they had not just spoken from their own perspective but had also called for digital education for everyone across the generations. Regarding the trust in public institutions, Mr Schraps believed that a new discourse had to be found on how to deal with mistakes. When adopting laws as a legislative body, he thought that some room for manoeuvre had to be kept. The administrative body had such space but were afraid of making mistakes. As such, these problems had to be solved jointly and without this fear.
Prof Jānis Vucāns remembered that the topic of resilience had first surfaced in the BSPC in 2014, after the Russian occupation of Crimea. Aside from the obvious hate speech, he also saw other effects at work, such as the availability of Russian TV channels and their influence in several European countries. This was part of a hidden attempt to spread post-Soviet ideas, which was why these channels and Russian products had been banned in Latvia. Resilience needed stronger cooperation and better understanding of these issues across the countries.
Strengthening the resilience of maritime ecosystems
The session was chaired by Mr Jorodd Asphjell and Ms Anna Kassautzki.
MrVirginijus Sinkevičius considered the BSPC a unique parliamentary bridge between all the countries of the Baltic Sea region. An objective of both EU and BSPC was to make the Baltic Sea clean and safe. Despite many efforts, the fish stocks remained under pressure, threatening the livelihoods of many local communities. Eutrophication through excessive nitrogen loads had to be curbed urgently. The sea-dumped ammunition was another threat that had to be tackled, and he cherished the BSPC’s repeated push on this issue. Strong regional collaboration by all stakeholders had to be the solution.
Speech by Ms Steffi Lemke, Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, Germany
Ms Steffi Lemke pointed out that the work on environmental protection of the Baltic Sea had been encumbered by the ramifications of the Russian war of aggression. These were all the more visible in the Baltic Sea region, as evidenced by the halted cooperation in HELCOM. Yet the democratic nations were continuing the implementation of the HELCOM Action Plan. Beyond the Baltic Sea region, breakthrough developments in marine protection had been possible: Germany had called for a pause on deep-sea mining until relevant frameworks were established, based on the incalculable risks. This paradigm shift was important, she highlighted. By now, 21 nations had committed to such a precautionary pause. As relevant was the UN Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty which had finally been agreed upon in March 2023, despite the difficult times. The goal was to have the treaty ratified prior to the UN Oceans Conference in Nice in 2025, requiring 60 countries to pass it. The Montreal biodiversity conference had called for 30 % of the seas to be turned into marine protected areas, which was only possible by covering areas beyond national jurisdiction.
Moving on, she looked at the efforts to establish a legally binding treaty against plastic pollution. The second round of negotiations had taken place in Paris in April 2023. It was incumbent to reduce the amount of plastic in the sea, although a breakthrough had not yet been reached. As vital as recycling was in this issue, the current rate of plastic production meant it would not suffice as a solution. Instead, the production – especially of toxic and non-recyclable ones – had to be reduced. Ms Lemke spoke about the horrendous situation in the oceans, having reached unprecedented temperatures. This was also reflected by the increased hurricane season. Thus, it was all the more important for the Dubai COP to yield success in curbing temperatures. Otherwise, Ms Lemke put the raison d’être behind climate conferences in doubt. Given that any reduction in temperature would take a long time, she appealed to the parliamentarians to support the restoration law on the EU level. Nature was needed to support the amelioration efforts.
Ms Lemke addressed the issue of sea-dumped ammunitions in the Baltic Sea which had been neglected far too long. She underlined the federal government’s pledge of 100 million euros to push forward the retrieval efforts. This should serve as a warning sign that in the future, munitions – or other items – were not simply dumped into the seas. At the latest in early 2024, the construction of a mobile marine disposal facility would begin, followed with pilot retrieval missions at the latest in 2025 in the German areas of the Baltic Sea. The plan was to continue this work in collaboration with other Baltic Sea nations. That, like so many marine protection goals, could only be achieved in joint efforts. All of these had to be pursued vigorously.
Mr Philipp da Cunha noted that the BSPC had just completed its Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity, one of the organisation’s many efforts in that field. The group had investigated the situation in the Arctic on site in Tromsø, learning how much faster warming is happening there. Mr da Cunha wondered how the cooperation of the responsible ministers in the Baltic Sea region could be reinforced. He noted the working group’s in-depth examination of peatlands and respective emissions, asking how their importance could be underlined more strongly.
Ms Steffi Lemke saw the collaboration between the European ministers on the environment as excellent, explicitly including Norway. In times like these, with so many challenges, it was important for parliamentarians to keep highlighting marine protection. The same applied to peatlands the draining of which had significantly contributed to increased CO2 emissions. While this had created prosperity, it was now threatening to destroy it, so that the draining had to be reversed. In Germany, four billion euros had been provided through the programme Natural Climate Protection until 2025 for the renaturation of ecosystems. Using nature to combat climate change was a vital tool that she expected to play a major role at the COP in Dubai.
Ms Anna Kassautzki underlined that the working group had discussed not only the state of the Baltic Sea but had also dealt intensively with peatlands. It had been a fruitful discussion across country and party borders.
Mr Andreas Schoop of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum applauded the sea-dumped munitions problem finally being tackled. He wondered if the Baltic Future Conference could lead to a breakthrough and bringing all the countries together to solve the problem.
Ms Steffi Lemke perceived a lot of attention surrounding that conference. She hoped for a powerful resolution, not just about ammunition but also concerning the climate crisis, global warming, and in particular the influx of nitrates and phosphates into the Baltic Sea. Whichever tools would be used, the influx had to be stopped. In that, she asked the parliamentarians to send a strong signal towards this goal so this would be in that resolution.
Speech by Ms Emma Nohrén, Chair of the Committee on Environment and Agriculture; Member of the Swedish BSPC Delegation
Ms Emma Nohrén spoke about how Sweden was dealing with complex environmental objectives. As a PhD student, she had been working with shallow soft sediment bottoms. These issues had led her to become a politician. Sweden had started its environmental objectives system in 1999, with the overall goal of solving the major environmental problems without increasing environmental and health problems outside Swedish borders. A council of scientists had been convened to provide suggestions on sharpening the approach to the government. Unfortunately, the advice had not fit with other political objectives, such as labour. 13 years earlier, a cross-party committee on environmental objectives had been established instead. This worked on complex issues outside every-day politics together with scientific experts to find solutions. Many reports had been produced, chief among them the 2016 report making Sweden the first country in the world to set a net-zero emissions target.
In 2017, the first UN Oceans Conference had been held in Sweden. In the course of that, this committee had been charged with developing a marine strategy for the country. Ms Nohrén had been appointed chair, adding that members of all political parties were represented. It had been important to her to have experts on law, science, and everything in-between. The approach in Sweden was to have a 360° look around society, involving stakeholders, NGOs, municipalities. In this case, that also meant seafood chefs, small- and large-scale fishermen, local councils. If data was lacking in a specific area, the committee could commission reports. The mission statement was not to overcome any and all problems but to make sure they were acknowledged and addressed. This included the view that ocean and climate issues were intertwined. Their work ended with more than a hundred proposals, backed by all the parties in the Swedish parliament. These covered changes in responsibilities, various laws as well as minor alterations. Moreover, she had been able to take the Swedish proposals and raise them to the EU level.
Afterwards, the committee had turned to the climate footprint of Sweden, again with the support of all parties. As the first country, they had come up with a proposal for long-time targets for Swedish emissions.
This way of working had proven successful in Sweden, in particular on the complex topic of marine issues.
Speech by Mr Christoph Humborg, Professor of Coastal Biogeochemistry and Scientific Director of Baltic Sea Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Prof Christoph Humborg addressed coastal seas as key areas for climate change. Yet they had been mistreated for decades, with massive repercussions. The Baltic Sea was a poster child for this, being entirely surrounded by land and only connected to other waters through the Danish strait. Thus, the water residence time was about 30 years, retaining the pollutants longer than, e.g., the North Sea. From a scientific point of view, resilience was achieved by a higher biodiversity. It was the basis for successful fisheries, made the system more fit to cope with heatwaves, and it could serve as a carbon sink for climate mitigation. The average temperature across a hundred years had increased near the Finnish coast by at least 2 degrees, at 30 metres depth. Heatwaves drove up those figures, leading to marine fauna dying. A higher biodiversity, though, allowed faster recovery from such shocks.
There were clear synergies between water quality, biodiversity, and climate change. 100 years ago, a typical ecosystem had a high biodiversity, numerous fish stocks, and key habitats like salt marshes and seagrasses binding carbon into the soil. Prof Humborg underlined that marine sediments were better carbon sinks than forest soils. In the present day, due to eutrophication, they had turned into carbon sources, much like previously mentioned peatlands. In Swedish coastal waters, methane emissions were on the order of 4 – 5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. For the entire Baltic Sea, it was more than 10 million tonnes. Massive so-called dead zones were formed by algal blooms – caused through fertilizer influx into the sea – sinking to the sea floor.
Yet there was hope, Prof Humborg underlined: The HELCOM Action Plan had contributed to lowering the nitrate and phosphate input, mainly through sewage treatment. This was unprecedented globally. The Baltic Sea region was one of only a few that had managed to reduce its nutrient inputs. Yet it was a long-term process: It had taken 50 years to ruin the Baltic Sea, cleaning it up would take another 50 years.
Regarding fishery in the Baltic Sea, that was a disaster. For decades, more than 20 % of fish stocks were removed, threatening a crash of the population. The EU’s policy of squeezing as much fish as possible while just maintaining stocks was detrimental in a sea sensitive to such pressures. At the same time, scientific advice had often been too optimistic. Moreover, fishermen often fished a little more than advised. This had led to the cod population crashing. The situation for herring was not much better. Worse, he criticised that more than 90 % of all fish caught in the Baltic Sea was not for human consumption but fish meal or fish oil.
His recommendations to achieve a resilient Baltic Sea were to first implement the Baltic Sea Action Plan, reducing the inputs into the ocean, and also implement the Green Deal as well as the Farm To Fork Strategy. A better water quality was the basis for a better biodiversity which in turn would switch the system from a carbon source to a carbon sink. Secondly, fishing should be done more carefully, eliminating big trawler and maximised approaches. That also created more jobs for local fishermen. Thirdly, and significantly, ocean sediments had to be returned to carbon sinks, removing the dead zones, by restoring biodiversity.
Speech by Mr Ronald Lieske, Director of the Managing Authority and Joint Secretariat of Interreg Baltic Sea Region
Mr Ronald Lieske coordinated a 25-years-old funding programme for the Baltic Sea region, on behalf of the local countries and the EU. The programme covered the eight EU Baltic Sea countries and the southern part of Norway, working with companies and organisations of at least three countries. His side also provided structural support to bring together cultures, different perspectives and expertise together to develop joint solutions. The four funding priorities were innovative societies, water-smart societies, and climate-neutral societies. The resilience of the marine ecosystem was part of the water-smart societies. In addition, their fourth priority serviced technical support for the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. The main target groups were institutions implementing solutions – such as the NGOs in the regions and cities. Knowledge was to be shared, solutions tested, and ideas transferred between the regions. His side was part of the EU Cohesion Policy. As such, they were part of the EU seven-year funding scheme, currently in the 2021 – 2027 period. 14 months after the start, two thirds of the funds of 250 million euros had already been allocated, for 85 projects of different scales with 880 project partners from all region countries.
Looking at solutions for marine resilience, his side was working on e.g., improving wastewater treatment systems, promoting sustainable agricultural practices, combating invasive species, adapting coastal systems to the effects of climate change, efficient water use and recycling, developing early warning systems to reduce the risks from natural and man-made hazards. Local knowledge was incorporated into the planning and decision-making processes. One specific project was testing water treatment processes to help water utilities better remove organic micro pollutants from the wastewater, developing guidelines in cooperation with HELCOM. It would be rolled out from pilot projects to countries all around the Baltic Sea. Another project was about harmonising land and maritime planning of various involved authorities, such as integrating the needs of offshore wind energy and tourism. This was an example of their bottom-up approach, with cities stating their needs and receiving support from the level of HELCOM or even the EU. As for dumped munitions, a call had been put out to get the best corporations working on the issue. Several of Mr Lieske’s side’s projects in previous funding periods had already targeted the problem, such as DAEMON II. The funds allocated for this goal were only 5 million euros but had to be considered on top of the 100 million euros provided by the German federal government.
Strengthening marine resilience was a long-term goal that could only be solved by collaboration from all nations.
Mr Simon Påvals was concerned with sustainable fishing quotas, especially the trawling of breeding herring in the Gulf of Bothnia. He asked Ms Nohrén how to make sure to protect small-scale coastal fishing as well as how to move the matter more effectively up to the international stage.
Ms Emma Nohrén replied that her Swedish committee had already been aware three years earlier when that project had been completed. Although work had been done, it was still necessary to move the trawling zone further from the shore, lower the quotas, and perhaps ban industrial trawling in general.
Prof Christoph Humborg added that Sweden and Finland were collaborating on the EU level since fisheries were most closely associated with policies. He noted that trawling was rightfully forbidden in the Great Lakes region in the USA, which was comparable to the Baltic Sea. When quotas were negotiated, the Baltic Sea should be treated as a special case because it was so different from the North Sea and the open Atlantic.
Mr Wille Valve pointed out that there had been great success in reducing nutrient inflows since the 1980s although it might be the next generation to see a healthy Baltic Sea. Yet much more had to be done, and he called on his colleagues to make the Baltic Sea great again.
Ms Alicia Wach, BSPYF, noted that as an environmental scientist, she had just worked on a project with GEOMAR in Kiel on carbon capture methods. The IPCC considered them vital tools for climate neutrality. She noted that seaweed fields could take up 35 times more carbon than rainforests in the Amazon, yet they were under pressure from agriculture and rising water temperatures. They should be protected through legislative measures. Secondly, carbon capture and storage was about trapping industrial emissions before reaching the air; although a somewhat risky process, the carbon could be bound to the sediment below the Baltic Sea. She encouraged the parliamentarians to look further at both methods.