With a particular focus on the current geopolitical situation and on strengthening the resilience of maritime ecosystems
At the European Parliament in Brussels, the BSPC Standing Committee convened to learn about the recent activities of the European Parliament and its close partner organisations, the CBSS and HELCOM, as well as about the work of the EU Commission’s DG MARE with a particular focus on the current geopolitical situation and on strengthening the resilience of maritime ecosystems.
Further, preparations were made for the annual conference in Berlin on 27-29 August while considerations were given to the next working group to investigate an urgent topic of interest.
About 35 participants, representatives and delegations of the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of the Baltic Sea States, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM) and the BSPC members from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, the European Parliament, Denmark, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden participated in the meeting.
Returning once more to the pre-COVID tradition of its winter meetings held in Brussels, the BSPC Standing Committee convened at the seat of the European Parliament for its discussions. They were welcomed by their host, Mr Andreas Schwab, MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Northern cooperation and for relations with Switzerland and Norway and to the EU-Iceland Joint Parliamentary Committee and the European Economic Area (EEA) Joint Parliamentary Committee, who highlighted the importance of the Baltic Sea region for the European Parliament. With the probable accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, turning the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake”, that importance would only increase. Energy security in that region would also remain crucial, with cooperation on wind farms and establishing hydrogen infrastructure in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Finland. At the same time, environmental efforts continued to be fundamentally urgent, also in connection with the ecological disaster after the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. He voiced his hope that the cooperation in the Baltic Sea region would be even more efficient.
BSPC President Johannes Schraps remarked on the multiplicity of crises in recent times – not least the Russian aggression against Ukraine – during which parliaments, such as the European Parliament, had taken and were taking far-reaching decisions to provide fundamental long-term decisions as well as short-term and fast-acting decisions on pressing matters.
On that note, Mr Roberts Zile, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, spoke about the current challenges in Europe and the future of Europe from the perspective of the European Parliament. In particular, he noted recognising the paramount importance of security. He underlined the efforts in having Ukrainian President Selenskyy address the parliament as well as pushing for the military and financial support for Ukraine. In the course of the past year, it had become clear that military preparedness had to be established as the key for security in the Baltic Sea region. The decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO had been crucial. The energy sector was another area where the mistakes of recent history had to be rectified in the present. By standing together, though, that course correction was underway, already having brought Europe through a winter where a worse situation had been expected. Mr Zile also addressed the climate change endeavours, pointing to the upcoming response of the EU to the USA’s actions on promoting in-country products and services. Yet to be resolved, though, were such issues as countermeasures against inflation or how to handle migration and general asylum policies. He stressed that the international order had to be strengthened, adding that what was good for Europe was very good for the Baltic Sea region. Parliaments had to stand together in these efforts.
Prof Jānis Vucāns highlighted the intensive support from the Baltic countries to Ukraine, wondering how the other European countries’ efforts could be improved. Mr Roberts Zile noted the varying urgency of the issue in the different nations, requiring internal striving to intensify the help. At the same time, sanctions and confiscation of Russian assets within the EU were on the table, despite the complex legal situation.
Cooperation With the CBSS
Ambassador Grzegorz Poznański, Director General of the CBSS Secretariat, highlighted how closely the BSPC and the CBSS were working together, especially on the continuation of the regional cooperation after Russia’s withdrawal. He focused on the most important happenings in the CBSS, beginning with the German presidency’s priorities on youth, offshore power and dumped munitions. The CBSS had provided a sustainable youth platform for the Baltic Sea region, also feeding into the renamed Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum. The CBSS Baltic Sea Youth Forum, now a permanent institution, allowed young people to interact with political representatives. On that basis, a CBSS Youth Ministerial Meeting would be held in Berlin, prior to the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum in conjunction with the BSPC in Berlin back to back to BSPC Conference. On the second point, a planned Offshore Energy Forum would bring together the foreign ministers of Germany and Denmark as well as the environment ministers of all CBSS member states with the stakeholders, including business and academia. Regarding dumped munitions, the CBSS had moved the matter forward into concrete action together with HELCOM. They now knew what was known but also what still had to be researched. Monitoring was required, he noted. In December, an expert round table had taken place, with politicians and civil servants also taking part. Ambassador Poznański underlined the significant role DG Mare from the European Commission was playing in these endeavours. Furthermore, the CBSS had been considering the future of regional cooperation, looking into safety and security as well as the youth voice as part of the regional identity. Ambassador Poznański pointed to the upcoming Ministerial Meeting in Wismar as decisive for setting the course on all these various issues. As for the present work, he pointed out that the cohesion among the member states had increased greatly since the Russian withdrawal as had the importance of the CBSS. In addition, the integration of the successful Baltic Sea cooperation into the European cooperation was important since the Baltic success also meant a success for Europe.
Mr Florian Rudolph, Chair of the Committee of Senior Officials of the Council of the Baltic Sea States during the German Presidency, added the economic urgency of offshore energy – the transition away from fossil fuels which included ending the dependence on Russian supplies – as well as the climate crisis requiring this. That necessitated stronger cross-border cooperation, as reflected by the mentioned high-level meeting in Berlin on 9 May 2023. In the run-up to the next Ministerial Meeting in Wismar in early June, the youth voice was to be encouraged to find recommendations on security and resilience which they would communicate to the ministers. On dumped munitions, he noted the recent workshop in Kiel.
BSPC Secretary General Bodo Bahr underlined the BSPC’s delight that the twelve-year process of making the Baltic Sea Youth Platform a stable institution had been completed, wondering how that was secured for the future. Prof Jānis Vucāns was interested in the planned financial mechanism for action on dumped munitions. BSPC President Johannes Schraps asked about the possibility of a CBSS Summit as 11 years ago in Stralsund. Mr Rudolph confirmed a foreign ministers’ meeting for the beginning of June, offering the possibility of high-level dialogue on the issues of the region. He did not believe a Baltic Sea Summit was likely during the German presidency. On dumped munitions, the CBSS was pursuing its cooperation with HELCOM and further promoting the issue. Regarding youth collaboration, a respective permanent position in the CBSS Secretariat in Stockholm had been established, highlight youth dialogue and the Youth Ministerial Meeting. Different players – among them the parliament of Schleswig-Holstein – were coming together to sustain a reasonable future for this platform. Ambassador Poznański added that the structures for the youth platform were being enacted but had already been enshrined in the CBSS. The financial mechanism for dumped munitions would be discussed by the member states in HELCOM and the CBSS. One option raised at the Kiel workshop was a format like the Northern Dimension partnership, to generate funds.
The EU Commission: DG Mare
Mr Felix Leinemann, from DG MARE, was responsible for Blue Economy Sectors, Aquaculture & Maritime Spatial Planning, presenting the Current Main Activities of the Commission on Strengthening Maritime Ecosystems with a Particular View of the Baltic Sea. On the economic front, he noted that sustainability had to be built into all aspects, as per the Green Deal, such as the circular economy. The Baltic Sea could become a forerunner for green growth and sustainability, with many countries already willing to work together. At least 19.6 gigawatts of energy should be provided by offshore wind energy by 2030, seven times the current capacity. The Baltic Sea region’s experience in maritime spatial planning and regional cooperation on marine issues would be crucial in achieving this. Environmental aspects represented some of the best success stories in Baltic Sea regional cooperation. Innovation, though, could also be promoted through such collaboration, especially for a sustainable blue economy. In a smart specialisation platform, a bottom-up approach had identified several priorities in blue biotechnologies, green renewables, coastal and maritime tourism, fisheries, and agriculture as areas. He moved on to say that the sea basin was important for the mission of restoring the oceans by 2030, with concrete actions to be set for the North and Baltic Sea at a high-level event in Hamburg on 25-26 April 2023. Part of that would be regenerative ocean planning, allowing fishermen to diversify their business.
Mr Leinemann noted that safety and security were also an issue in this, noting as an example that Russian ships had already been seen approaching Belgian wind farms. The European Maritime Security Strategy, established in 2014, updated in 2018, would be updated again in the current week, including the increased geopolitical competition. But that also included the dumped munitions from the World Wars, threatening the blue economy in e.g., offshore construction or fishing vessels. Some cooperative efforts were already in place, but a dedicated mechanism was being discussed to tackle this issue in earnest through the CBSS and HELCOM.
Mr Wille Valve asked for more information about said dedicated mechanism while Mr Staffan Eklöf wondered about how to avoid negative impacts on biodiversity in the course of the expansion of offshore wind power. To the first question, Mr Felix Leinemann explained that the Kiel workshop had explored expert knowledge and concrete solutions, leading into a small-scale pilot project to be scaled up later. As for the impact on biodiversity, he noted that maritime spatial plans on where to allow wind farms to be built had to be developed internationally at the sea basin level rather than on a national basis. Mechanisms to support such measures were already in place, such as VASAB in HELCOM. An example was the North Sea Energy Cooperation looking at the cumulative impacts of the different developments on marine species. To a question from Mr Bodo Bahr about the revisions to the Maritime Security Strategy, Mr Leinemann mentioned that the renewable energy produced at sea was now also considered in terms of strategic and energy security. The common information sharing environment CISE was another instrument, allowing information everything that could be monitored and observed at sea to be exchanged on a need-to-know basis. Those were the main building blocks, he noted, but the strategy had tens of dozens of actions that would be updated.
HELCOM: Its Work and the Priorities of the Latvian Chairmanship
Mr Rüdiger Strempel, Executive Secretary of the Helsinki Commission, gave an overview of HELCOM’s achievements in 2022 as well as an outlook on what was planned for the present year 2023. First, Mr Strempel provided some background, focusing on HELCOM’s goal of improving the unique but fragile ecosystem of the Baltic Sea to a healthy status and outlining the working structure of the organisation. This was due to be revised in the spring of 2023. Since the Russian aggression against Ukraine, HELCOM had entered a strategic pause in which all official meetings had been postponed. Mr Strempel pointed out that the HELCOM Contracting Partners which were also EU members were presently called the “HELCOM 9” or “H 9”. These continued informal consultations as needed while official procedures still requiring Russian participation were handled via correspondence with the latter. As for external meetings, HELCOM presently did not participate in any with Russian involvement, except for the UN and the like. Mr Strempel underlined that the organisation was in fact operational.
As for HELCOM’s current activities, implementing the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan was front and centre. Its predecessor had aimed for a healthy state of the Baltic Sea by 2021, which had failed. The update had tweaked various measures, resulting in 199 actions, each of which had an individual target year. Some of these had already been implemented. Each action had been assigned to one or several HELCOM bodies who assumed ownership of this. There were specific criteria by which achievement could be measured. This could be tracked on a tool which was available on the organisation’s website called the HELCOM Explorer. Aside from the Baltic Sea Action Plan, Mr Strempel mentioned several other processes, including the regional action plan on marine litter as well as the recently released Climate Change Fact Sheet, providing information on what was known – and what was not known – about the effects of climate change in the Baltic Sea. Further activities included the HELCOM Red List Project and the HELCOM submerged assessment of warfare materials in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, HELCOM was continuing its cooperation with partner organisations, global, continental, and regional. They were contributing to the Global Ocean Agenda, the UN Oceans Conference, and the 2020 Global Diversity Framework.
Another flagship activity was the Holistic Assessment of the State and Loads on the Baltic Sea (HOLAS), currently going into its third iteration. It was holistic because it covered the entire area of activities: biodiversity, eutrophication, hazardous substances, economic and social analyses and spatial pressures and impacts. It also looked into the various facets of impacts on the environment – from drivers over activities all the way to the measures to address them. There would be a number of outputs, including a holistic summary report as well as thematic assessment reports, indicator evaluations, and new data.
In 2024, the next Ministerial Meeting would be held. The same year, the 50th anniversary of HELCOM would be celebrated in some form, despite the circumstances.
Ms Evija Šmite, Chair of the Helsinki Commission, Deputy Director-General, Director of Fisheries Control Department, State Environmental Service, spoke about the priorities of the current Latvian HELCOM chairmanship: first, maintaining HELCOM as an effective and well-functioning organisation of regional cooperation; second, the implementation of the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan, focusing on the protection of marine biodiversity and advancing ecosystem-based sustainable marine management; third, strengthening the role of regional cooperation in the context of international ocean governance to support the achievement of the global sustainable development goals and focus in those on the conservation of marine biodiversity. It was also important to coordinate and harmonise the work in the context of the Baltic Sea Action Plan 2021 with the various political instruments and ongoing international initiatives of the European Union.
Ms Šmite noted that HELCOM had entered a strategic pause so that official meetings were postponed but not cancelled. The suspension had also been prolonged until further notice by the current chairmanship. However, the Latvian chairmanship was organising as major events the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting in Riga in the spring of 2024 and a celebration of HELCOM’s 50th anniversary.
Mr Wille Valve asked how nutrient input into the Baltic Sea could be reduced. Mr Bodo Bahr inquired about how the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan could ensure better implementation and what was known about Russia implementing these measures. To the former, Ms Evija Šmite pointed to the very concrete actions and thresholds in the revised action plan, including work on reducing eutrophication. Mr Rüdiger Strempel noted that while the previous action plan had not succeeded, it had ameliorated the situation. HELCOM had undertaken a unique sufficiency of measures analysis, allowing the weaknesses of the previous iteration to be preceived and rectified in the update. With the high level of commitment by the involved parties, he expected substantial progress. As for Russia, Mr Strempel mentioned that improving the conditions in the Baltic Sea was in that country’s self-interest, so he assumed they were taking action which would contribute to implementing the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Precise information was not available, though.
The 31st BSPC Resolution and Conference
BSPC President Johannes Schraps explained that the statements on the 30th Resolution had been received from Åland, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden. These had been published on the BSPC website.
As for the 31st Conference in Stockholm in 2022, the detailed report with all speeches and contributions and decisions adopted during the conference plus the list of participants and photos had been published on the BSPC website. He had presented the 31st Resolution at several international meetings. The deadline for submitting government statements regarding that resolution had been set for 15 April 2023.
Prof Jānis Vucāns noted that the Baltic Assembly had informed the Baltic governments about the Resolution, expecting a reply prior to the deadline.
The BSPC Working Groups and Rapporteurs
The present Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity would hold its next meeting in Tromsö in Norway, two weeks later. Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle explained that the programme would focus on the Arctic, including a visit to the Polar Institute. The reason was that climate change was most visible in the Arctic.
Mr Jarosław Wałęsa underlined that the preparations for the subsequent final meeting of the working group in Gdansk on 14-15 May were well under way.
The Standing Committee proceeded to discuss the topic of the new working group to be launched in September 2023. As a basis for the conversation, President Johannes Schraps listed as primarily possible themes the energy transition, safety and security in the region, migration and integration in the current context as well as digital resilience. Mr Staffan Eklöf noted the need for better preparedness in security matters. Prof Jānis Vucāns proposed a thorough concept from the Baltic Assembly for an energy-focused working group. Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson saw overlaps in several of the suggested topics. Ms Westgaard-Halle highlighted Europe’s vulnerability in energy matters but also the connection to security. Mr Wałęsa agreed that security challenges covered a broad range of areas. Ms Carola Veit argued for a clear focus of the working group, adding that an option would be to have two groups in parallel so that a wider swathe of interests could be covered. Mr Henrik Møller offered his interest in the Baltic Assembly’s concept. President Johannes Schraps noted that the previous two working groups had run for three years although a two-year span would fit better with the election cycles of parliamentarians. He proposed that the delegations think more about narrowing down the focus of the options and that firm suggestions be submitted by the end of April. A decision would then be taken at the next meeting of the Standing Committee.
The 32nd BSPC Conference and the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
BSPC President Johannes Schraps noted that a preliminary draft programme had been made available, including speaker proposals from the Estonian and Swedish delegations. Mr Staffan Eklöf explained that his side had proposed Prof Humborg, an expert on biodiversity who had spoken to the BSPC on several occasions already, for the topic of maritime resilience as well as a fellow parliamentarian on the working methods and processes in environmental politics. Mr Wille Valve of the Åland delegation had proposed a speaker on eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. President Johannes Schraps welcomed further ideas, also by e-mail later on.
Given that the PABSEC was along the preliminary programme envisaged to be invited to the conference, Prof Jānis Vucāns wished to clarify the BSPC’s stance since Russia was still a part of the PABSEC. President Schraps said that he would discuss the matter with the vice-presidents and put the invitation to a vote at the next Standing Committee meeting in June, also taking into account the position of Ukraine as they were also members of PABSEC. He cautioned that this would mean cutting ties with the other organisation.
For the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, President Johannes Schraps noted that a preliminary meeting would be held on 3 June, introducing the work and functioning of the BSPC and CBSS. The forum itself would start on 25 August 2023 with a get-to-know-each-other. The first full day on Saturday, 26 August 2023 would include networking sessions with parliamentarians as well as panel and roundtable group discussions to allow participants to work out recommendations which were to be finalised on the following Sunday to be presented to the annual conference right after the forum. 50 young people between 18 and 26 from the BSPC member countries and regions would take part in a mix of open applications (from 15 March to 15 April 2023) and representatives of youth organisations.
The theme of the forum would be Democracy Under Siege – How Do We Make Democracies More Resilient? Four sub-topics had been prepared: Improving digital resilience – Conspiracy theories and hate speech as a threat to democratic societies; Increasing youth participation and engaging young people in political decision-making; Social division and polarisation in the face of right-wing extremism – How do we stand together and find common ground?; Sustaining faith in democratic institutions by reducing social inequality. The aim was to incorporate the recommendations into the resolution of the 33rd BSPC 2024.
Prof Jānis Vucāns asked for and received clarifications on the sub-topics.
Secretary General Bodo Bahr explained that 2022 had been a uniquely difficult year, having the Russian delegations withdraw from the BSPC and even discussions about closing down the organisations. The budget had had to keep all options open, giving the reduced funds. Partial compensation was possible due to the removal of translation services and some parliaments covering meeting costs. Looking to the future, the Standing Committee had decided to raise the annual contributions of the member countries and regions. These were already made available for 2023, even though some parliaments still had to undergo approval processes. That meant an increase of contributions to € 249,000, compensating both the lacking Russian fees and inflation since 2007. Mr Bahr pointed out that the new Rules and Procedures stated that the secretariat costs were covered now by the membership fees. Despite original expectations, the surplus had increased to ca. € 173,000.
The Standing Committee agreed to the financial report for 2022.
Moving on to the budget plan for 2023, Mr Bahr explained that this was based on the increased contributions, including the running costs for the secretariat. Translation costs would be paid from the BSPC budget in special cases. The costs for the meetings – excluding the conference – would be covered by the BSPC rather than hosting parliaments, allowing less financially viable parliaments to offer hosting. In addition, the BSPC website urgently had to be updated. Should there be a shortfall, remaining costs could be covered from the unused means.
Mr Sten Erikssen asked about the youth forum’s costs being – partially – covered in the budget. BSPC President Johannes Schraps and Bodo Bahr explained that this was also intended to ensure that a hosting parliament would be able to organise this event.
The Standing Committee agreed on the budget for 2023.
Furthermore, the matter of a permanent location of the secretariat would be discussed within the presidium, President Johannes Schraps noted after the approval of the Standing Committee, now that both vice-presidential positions were (about to be) filled.
The Standing Committee appointed the new head of the Danish delegation, Mr Henrik Møller, as Vice-President of the BSPC, due to take over as President after the 2023 BSPC Annual Conference.
The participants deepened the discussed issues and their cooperation in a series of conversations on the side-lines of the meeting.
Further photos can be found in EP’s Multimedia Center: