The highest Executive Committee of the BSPC was informed in its online meeting on the activities of HELCOM in strengthening international cooperation to restore the health of the Baltic marine environment as well as efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by experts in the field. The most important strategies to contain the virus and protect health were laid out. The meeting included 50 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, Schleswig-Holstein, Saint Petersburg and Sweden.
In his welcoming speech, BSPC President Pyry Niemi referred to the digital seminar the BSPC had held a few weeks earlier on Democracy in a Changing Media Landscape. He pointed out that its findings about the need to defend democracy, to fight for and strengthen it had been echoed by US President Joe Biden in a recent keynote speech. The Council of Europe had also underlined the urgent need for international cooperation. This widespread concern reinforced the Swedish Presidency’s priority for this topic. Mr Niemi further reflected on the one-year anniversary of the last meeting the BSPC had been able to hold in person and that, despite the current mutations, the vaccination efforts would allow them to meet again away from the digital realm.
Progress Report on the activities of HELCOM
Dr Lilian Busse, chair of HELCOM, explained that Germany was holding the rotating chairmanship from 2020 – 2022 and would host the Ministerial Meeting in October 2021. She outlined the make-up as well as the decision-making process of HELCOM. Dr Busse noted the current Baltic Sea Action Plan’s goals of a good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021. As these goals had not been met, the decision had been made with a strong political mandate in 2018 to update it by evolving it from the preceding version. In that effort, the economic and social benefits of a healthy sea were considered, along with managing human activities and taking into account current HELCOM topics, such as marine litter or underwater noise. While the ambition level of the original Baltic Sea Action Plan would be maintained, global targets and commitments would also be included, e.g., the SDGs, the Aichi targets and EU MSFD. Ongoing projects and pursuits would be folded into the Baltic Sea Action Plan as well, Dr Busse explained, including efforts in nutrient recycling and maritime spatial planning. They were also developing a HELCOM Science Agenda that would consider which future science would be needed for a healthy Baltic Sea. Through the drafting and segment teams as well as the meetings of the heads of delegation, the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan would be finalised until presented for adoption to the Ministerial Meeting in October 2021.
Moving on to the German chairmanship, Dr Busse laid out its five priorities: strengthening ocean governance; updating and implementing the Baltic Sea Action Plan; trying new solutions for well-known, pressing challenges; strengthening marine biodiversity; understanding and responding to climate change and the Baltic Sea.
She went on to comment on several issues raised by the BSPC at its 29th Annual Conference in August 2020. Regarding biodiversity, Dr Busse explained that HELCOM was working on developing a coherent HELCOM network of marine protected areas as well as stepping up efforts to conserve endangered species such as harbour porpoises. HELCOM was also pursuing the reduction of nutrient inputs, e.g., by updating nutrient hotspots. On the problems of sea-dumped ammunitions, shipwrecks and ghost nets, HELCOM was seeking to share information and test technology for a better understanding of the situation and means to safely remove the munitions or fishing nets. They had also developed the Regional Marine Litter Action Plan to work on this issue.
Progress Reports on Combatting the COVID-19 Pandemic and International Cooperation in these Efforts
Dr Catherine Smallwood, WHO Europe, highlighted that the overall global situation had improved since the end of 2020. Across the countries most affected by the pandemic, the numbers of new cases and new deaths were decreasing. Moreover, seven different vaccines were currently being rolled out, with more down the road. Testing capabilities as well as treatments had become better as well. Existing countermeasures also held up against the new virus variants so far. But despite these positive trends, very high numbers of new cases persisted in specific regions, along with significant demand on the healthcare system. Some of these regions were in the countries of the Baltic Sea region. As such, the focus had to be on reducing infection which, Dr Smallwood stressed, was not possible through vaccination. Vaccination was targeting the vulnerable populations and not those groups driving transmission in society, i.e., the younger, healthier and working population.
Another threat to the current progress was posed by new variants of concern emerging. She underlined that mutations were more likely the wider the virus was spread. That is assumed to be behind the rapid acceleration of mutants in recent months, further underlining the urgency to reduce transmission in the human population. The variant of concern B.1.1.7, originating in the UK, had now been detected in 43 of the WHO member states and was growing in prevalence. Although the overall trends were coming down, the proportion of cases with the UK variant were increasing. Moreover, the South African variant might be able to evade the immune system and lower the efficacy of vaccines against it. She stressed that it was the shared belief of experts that vaccines would nonetheless continue to work against the virus.
Dr Smallwood also underlined that this might change if the virus was allowed to mutate further. Reducing transmission – through the established and proven hygiene measures – was the key to preventing this and thus the primary concern.
Regarding the vaccination efforts, some 200 vaccines were still being researched, in addition to the seven already rolled out. The challenge, though, was distribution when supply was insufficient for the global demand. The WHO was calling for vaccine equity in the world since low-income countries were trailing far behind in vaccination. Dr Smallwood underlined the crucial importance: Unmitigated spread in low-income countries would allow mutations to continue and might lead to the emergence of a variant against which the present vaccines would no longer work. Therefore, transmission had to be reduced on a global scale. In particular, health care workers around the globe should be vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Ülla-Karin Nurm, Director of the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Well-Being (NDPHS) Secretariat, underlined that the pandemic had highlighted the need for international cooperation in health. Working on this issue suffused all the NDPHS expert groups, through knowledge and experience exchange. In November, there had been a Northern Dimension Future Forum on COVID-19, dealing with the disruption in public health and health systems as well as the wider societal impact. Ms Nurm stressed that health inequalities had been brought to the forefront as some population groups had been affected disproportionately. For privileged people, the pandemic might be advantageous, e.g., through a better work-life balance. Those who had been suffering before the pandemic might suffer even more now. Mental health had decreased, levels of alcohol consumption had risen. The NDPHS had committed to devoting more time to such issues as well as the following areas:
The pandemic had highlighted the already existing shortage of doctors and nurses in the Baltic Sea region but also digitalisation as a possible recourse. Remote health and social services needed to be promoted while acceptance was high. Health service disruptions had made it more difficult for patients with pre-existing non-communicable diseases to be treated. Furthermore, long-term negative health effects were expected, for instance because of lower levels of exercise. In particular, the elderly population was most affected, not only through the threat of the virus but also the loss of social contacts and disruption of treatment.
Ms Nurm stressed that international cooperation was vital to combatting both the virus and the secondary effects of the pandemic to create more resilient health and public systems.
In response to questions by delegates, Dr Catherine Smallwood outlined the WHO’s COVAX programme which assisted low-income countries in acquiring vaccines at lower prices. Here, she referred to the high-income countries over-purchasing supplies which could be transmitted to the less advantaged nations without impacting the former’s vaccination progress. This would in particular apply once the most vulnerable groups were vaccinated in high-income nations.
Regarding best practices, Dr Smallwood underlined that there were some measures that had worked globally while others were valid only in certain regional conditions, e.g., island settings, and could not be transferred. The WHO was promoting harmonisation efforts to streamline mitigation measures globally. She explained that WHO Europe was collaborating with groups from the sub-regional to the regional level and above, primarily the EU but also including the Eastern European countries, Turkey and Russia outside the EU.
BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity
Working Group Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby updated the Standing Committee on the progress of the group and plans for the upcoming second meeting. Best practices and research results from various countries would be introduced and discussed. She highlighted efforts to include youth representatives in the conference in August, which she hoped would lead to a longer-term and constructive collaboration with youth organisations.
The 30th BSPC
BSPC President Pyry Niemi spoke about the progress in planning the annual conference in August under the title Sustainable Democracy – How to Face a Changing World. This core approach would be reflected in all sessions of the conference. While hopes were high that the conference could be held physically in Stockholm, preparations for a digital meeting were also proceeding. Mr Niemi noted that previous conferences had benefited from high-level political representation which would also be sought for the upcoming conference. Dr Andreas Norlén, the Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag, had already confirmed his participation.
The Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
BSPC President Pyry Niemi provided an update on plans to involve youth representatives in the next conference. The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Swedish Institute and the CBSS had joined efforts with the BSPC to create a back-to-back event with the conference, tentatively planned as a Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum. The CBSS had agreed to recruit the young participants through a call for applications via their website.
BSPC Standing Committee decisions
The Standing Committee approved the 2020 Financial Report including the Financial Result as per the Fourth Quarter of 2020 as well as the budget plan proposal for 2021. The Standing Committee agreed to publish Financial Report on the BSPC website:
The Standing Committee agreed to proceed on a Memorandum of Understanding with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM) to pursue a closer collaboration.
Status reports by the member states and regions on the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts had already been collected and published on the BSPC website in the summer of 2020. These had been updated in the meantime, and the Standing Committee agreed to release these on the website as well.
The Standing Committee decided to hold the upcoming meetings again in digital form. It was further agreed to hold a seminar on one of the priority topics of the Swedish Presidency in conjunction with the next meeting of the Standing Committee on 31 May.