After a first joint meeting 2019 in Istanbul, the Standing Committees of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference (BSPC) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (PABSEC) held a second meeting on the topics of ‘Democracy and the COVID-19 Pandemic’ as well as ‘Safeguarding Our Seas’; ‘Climate Change and Biodiversity’ in a digital format. The meeting was attended by more than 60 participants from the PABSEC and the BSPC as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs from Sweden and experts from scientific organizations. Delegations from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Kaliningrad, Karelia, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden as well as from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece, Romania and Turkey participated.
BSPC President Pyri Niemi and PABSEC Vice-President and Head of the PABSEC Azerbaijani Delegation, Eldar Guliyev, addressed the participants at the opening.
Pyry Niemi underlined the crucial necessity to continue constructive dialogue and close cooperation especially in difficult times. He expressed his regret that due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict global travel restrictions, the second joint meeting of both parliamentary organisations could not be hosted by the BSPC in Stockholm, as planned. Regarding the topic of the joint meeting, he pointed out that for the 27 parliaments and parliamentary organisations of the BSPC, it was of vital importance to make every effort to ensure peaceful and close neighbourliness as well as close cooperation based on democratic values, the rule of law, human rights, and equal opportunities for all. To this end, the BSPC would continue to pursue all the opportunities offered by parliamentary, governmental, and social exchange as well as fostering democratic dialogue among neighbours.
Eldar Guliyev pointed out that although both regions are separate and located rather far from each other, they shared many common problems that called for joint forces. The Black Sea as well as the Baltic Sea were important locations for energy projects and also several nations and cultures were located in the region of both seas.
The speaker appreciated the cooperation and energy brought by the delegates to the current meeting and expressed his hope for fruitful cooperation in the future. He mentioned the first joint meeting in Istanbul during which many questions had been raised. The situation had changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the existing problems had become even more urgent. The PABSEC had previously discussed all the current features and questions regarding the pandemic. For the Black Sea Economy Committee, a decision had been made that they needed to adapt to the existing circumstances of the pandemic to keep up functioning and parliamentary control. To mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, joint forces were necessary. Therefore, the Committee had been coordinating their actions at all levels, especially on the parliamentary level. Mr Guliyev emphasised that solidarity, also in international terms, was particularly important. He called for cooperation especially in the area of the economy in order to mitigate the negative effects.
He also turned to the issue of climate change, biodiversity, and how the environmental status of both seas could be protected. He admitted that PABSEC had encountered a vast number of different problems and called for strong measures to address climate change and to slow down the extinction of biodiversity on the global scale. Mr Guliyev added that society had to be part of the constructive dialogue. The Black Sea economic community had to be aware that it was especially important to stop the pollution of the sea.
In conclusion, the PABSEC Vice-President referred back to the Memorandum of Understanding signed by both organisations as a strong base for strengthening and deepening cooperation between the PABSEC and the BSPC.
Session on ‘Democracy and the COVID-19 Pandemic’
During the first session on ‘Democracy and the COVID-19 Pandemic’, chaired by BSPC President Pyri Niemi, Ms Ann Linde, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, and Mr Cemal Ozturk, Head of the PABSEC Turkish Delegation, addressed both Standing Committees.
Ms Ann Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, highlighted the importance of regional cooperation at the parliamentary and also the governmental level. The Minister pointed out that the CBSS was a good example of the added value of regional collaboration. The COVID-19 pandemic had shown how vulnerable and interlinked their societies were, making cross-border cooperation even more necessary. For Ms Linde, people-to-people cooperation, not least between young people in their region, was the backbone of this cooperation. It bound them all together, serving as a platform for building long-term relationships. Therefore, she welcomed the recent launch of the Baltic Sea Youth Platform as a valuable contribution to this end. Furthermore, she referred to the consequences the pandemic had had on health, humanitarian, developmental, and economic issues. In real terms, the pandemic had had a major impact on the poorest countries and particularly on discriminated and marginalised individuals. Half a billion people were at risk of being thrown back into poverty because of the pandemic.
The Minister stressed the fact that the pandemic had had a noticeably clear and negative effect on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the corona virus had in many instances been fully in line with international law, but others had been more extensive, and it was vital to continue following this issue closely so that these limitations to human rights and democracy did not become permanent fixtures in some states. It took time, Ms Linde underlined, sometimes generations, to build up stable and impartial democratic institutions, but they could be dismantled very quickly. She stressed that during the pandemic, the working environment for civil society organisations and human rights defenders had deteriorated with limited democratic space, and independent media was at risk in many places. More than 40 countries had introduced restrictions to freedom of expression, and close to 150 governments had introduced illegitimate limits to the freedom of association and assembly.
As an effort to provide a counter-narrative to the democratic backsliding, the Minister continued, the Swedish government had set itself the goal to promote and strengthen democracy, in particular the aspects of sustainable democracy, equality, participation, sustainable development, inclusive growth, governance, human rights, and security. Their ambition was to engage a broad range of actors and to stimulate the debate on the state of democracy these days as well as what had to be done collectively to keep it a strong force for tomorrow. Sweden had particularly focused on supporting civil society actors, human rights defenders, and trade union leaders as they had a central role in upholding democracy and holding governments to account. The response to the pandemic had to be based on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Only this way, confidence and trust in societies could be ensured, to make the response to this pandemic sustainable in the long run. Ensuring a gender perspective in the response was central. Women and girls had been much more exposed than men during the pandemic.
Ms Linde also highlighted that the freedom of the media and independent journalists was under threat. Journalists and media workers had to be able to do their jobs, both online and offline – informing the public and holding the leaders to account. A free and healthy independent media was also the best way to come to terms with the surge of disinformation which they had seen during the pandemic. But it was important that the various participants also started looking beyond the pandemic. They had to act against and formulate a strong counter-narrative to democratic backsliding. It was known that authoritarianism was not the answer to today’s challenges. The Swedish side was as convinced on this day as ever that democracy was the best form of governance for stability and development.
Political parties were the essential building blocks of a well-functioning democracy, Minister Linde went on. A pluralistic political system enabled everyone to make their voices heard and gave them the opportunity to influence society and to demand accountability. The participation of women was crucial. Democratic societies were demanding continuous work. As Ms Linde had said before, history had shown that it took time – sometimes generations – to build strong and stable democratic institutions and societies, but they could be dismantled quickly if people did not pay attention or took them for granted.
Mr Cemal Öztürk, Head of the PABSEC Turkish Delegation, presented examples of violations of the fundamental rights of citizens during the pandemic in many countries under the slogan of saving national health, and he explained how different strategies had been adopted by the Turkish authorities.
The speaker indicated that the fear of an epidemic today was on a global scale, thus strengthening the hand of the existing powers. Once this fear had been released into society, security policies could be implemented without any objections. Tracking systems such as face-scanning systems, loaded onto mobile phones, were open to abuse by authoritarian governments and elites, even though they could be useful in dealing with safety issues. To eliminate the ambiguity in question and for the democratic process to work, it had to be accomplished in cooperation with domestic associations, NGOs, and other parties, and most importantly, through the hand of parliaments, using a supervisory mechanism. At this point, Mr Öztürk gave the example of Hungary in which the Hungarian Prime Minister’s use of the powers of parliament itself had made the parliament dysfunctional. He added the most drastic example of South Africa where harsh policies had created an environment of martial law that would lead to those opposing the quarantine rules being shot by the police and army.
In many countries, elections were delayed or cancelled by arbitrary decisions. Authoritarian regimes saw the epidemic as an opportunity, restricting freedoms and causing concern for the future of democracy. Numerical studies on this issue revealed the state of decline, especially in EU member Balkan countries and Latin American democracies. According to the findings of another study by ‘Freedom House’, the crisis of democracy caused by the epidemic had worsened the situation of democracy and human rights in 128 countries.
Mr Öztürk stated that in this context, parliamentarians should monitor the balance of power, stick to the principle of transparency, listen to the wishes of their voters, apply policies that would include different segments of society, and exercise control over the government.
Regarding the situation in Turkey, the speaker admitted that his country had not declared a state of emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic but had chosen to continue its efforts to combat this pandemic by taking the necessary measures in accordance with the legal framework. Turkey had adopted human rights-oriented policies in determining measures to respond to the pandemic. The parliament had effectively carried out its activities and taken an approach that embraced all segments of society without discriminating against refugees and vulnerable groups.
Other members of parliaments from the BSPC and the PABSEC also presented the pandemic situation in their countries and exchanged their experience of parliamentary work during the pandemic. Among the speakers were Mr Pyry Niemi for Sweden, Mr Christian Juhl from Denmark, Ms Valentina Pivnenko, Russian Duma, Mr Wille Valve from the Åland Islands, Mr Jarosław Wałęsa, Poland, Mr Johannes Schraps, German Bundestag, and Mr E. Shandalovich, Karelia. The speakers reported on the current situation in their countries, stressed that the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic had shown that in times of crisis, when coordination was particularly important, the role of parliament was more important than ever in adopting the necessary laws, allocating resources, and carefully analysing the situation.
(These contributions will be published in detail separately in a compilation of statements on the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Session on ‘Safeguarding Our Seas’; ‘Climate Change and Biodiversity’
Within the framework of the second session on ‘Safeguarding Our Seas’; ‘Climate Change and Biodiversity’, chaired by Mr Simeon Kedikoglu, PABSEC Vice-President, Head of the PABSEC Hellenic Delegation, presentations were made by Ms Irina Makarenko, representative of the Permanent Secretariat of the Commission on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution, Prof Christoph Humborg, Scientific Director of the Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, and Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby, Chair of the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity.
Mr Simeon Kedikoglu in his introductory speech pointed out that the degradation and pollution of the environment and of the marine environment was so vast that it called for urgent concerted actions. The issue of the preservation of the marine environment of the Black Sea region among other ecological aspects had come to the forefront due to the role of the region in the global economy, firstly by being the main transport and energy hub of the Eurasian continent. The speaker explained that the marine territories of the wider Black Sea region were divided into three main basins, which were the waters of the Black and Azov Seas, the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea (Eastern Mediterranean). These three sea basins had common features in terms of environmental issues, while at the same time – as a result of the latest economic processes in the region -, they were all closely interrelated to each other. He continued by saying that the geography of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea brought additional environmental risks: Both those seas were landlocked or had very narrow connection with the oceans. Despite a more advantageous location, the Mediterranean Sea was also considered comparatively landlocked with a narrow connection with the Atlantic Ocean.
Those geographical conditions were contributing to a particularly difficult situation in the region, with severe environmental degradation of the regional seas starting in the early 1990s along with the initiation of the economic restructure in the countries of the Black Sea. Mr Kedikoglu said the basic critical factors affecting the marine environment of the region included: extensive use of land and water for agriculture, forests for the paper industry, pulp and construction, rivers for navigation, coastal resources for commercial fishing and tourism, and continued demands for oil and gas extraction. The speaker also mentioned the inflow of large quantities of nutrients from the major rivers resulting in overfertilisation of the seas, the increased intensity of phytoplankton, the introduction, through vessels navigating in the Black Sea, of alien species, including dangerous ones, and finally climate change. The Vice President of the PABSEC highlighted the importance of regional and interregional cooperation and the full implementation of existing regional mechanisms towards improving the effectiveness of environmental cooperation. He confirmed the PABSEC’s member countries’ willingness to achieve sustainable development based on a balanced relationship between social, economic, and environmental activities. The assembly he was representing acknowledged the need for close cooperation among the BSEC member states based on a regional approach in a coordinated manner for the protection of the marine environment, as the maritime aspect played a significant role for all the countries of the region in terms of trade and economic relations. The PABSEC, like the BSPC, through their many recommendations that had been adopted, was calling on the parliaments and the governments of the BSEC member states:
to improve the environmental monitoring system essential for a regional assessment of the state of marine environment as well as for the establishment of further actions and measures to rehabilitate the damaged marine environment and to evaluate the risks;
to integrate marine environmental concerns into economic sector strategies in line with the principles of sustainable development and to apply economic and financial instruments as incentives for the protection of the marine environment;
to strengthen the system of hazardous waste management, recycling of industrial waste and trans-boundary waste movement in the marine environment;
to promote the application of innovative, environmentally friendly and resource-saving technologies in the marine environment;
to regularly exchange information on the new developments in the legislation concerning the marine environment and the progress towards protecting the marine environment in accordance with international standards and agreements;
to ensure the practical implementation of the existing national laws and regulations, including international agreements, which are the essential part of national legislation;
to enhance cooperation with international organizations, especially with UN bodies and European institutions;
to support the activities of the non-governmental sector with their broad engagement in the protection of marine environment raising public awareness on the issues and challenges faced by the regional marine environment;
to establish an integrated coordination centre for maritime search and rescue activities (SAR) and on the fight against oil spills and pollution.
Mr Kedikoglu emphasised that any opportunity to enhance cooperation among both assemblies and exchange views on a topic requiring urgent action was truly valuable. He called for developing deeper cooperation and coordinating policy among the BSPC, the PABSEC and national parliaments to further elaborate shaping a global governance for managing and using the world’s oceans and their resources in ways that keep our seas healthy, productive, safe, and resilient.
Ms Irina Makarenko updated the meeting participants on relevant activities of the Commission on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution, with some references to the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlighted issues on collaboration with the Baltic Sea.
She mentioned that the Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution (also referred to as the ‘Bucharest Convention’) had been signed in Bucharest in April 1992 and ratified by all six legislative assemblies of the Black Sea countries at the beginning of 1994 and that it was the basic legal framework for regional cooperation to protect the coastal and marine environment. It consisted of four thematic protocols dealing with pollution from land-based sources, dumping oil and other harmful substances, and the protocol on biodiversity and landscape conservation. Ms Makarenko indicated that the main working document for the Permanent Secretariat was the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) on the Protection and Rehabilitation of the Black Sea – adopted in 1996 and amended in 2009. She also referred to the intensive mutual observer relations with international and public organisations among which were the UN Environment, the EU, and the PABSEC. Ms Makarenko included among the considerable achievements of the Committee’s work the elaboration and adoption of the short format of reporting based on indicators agreed by consensus and compatible with global approach to indicators; the text of the Black Sea Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Program – for the years 2017-2022, drafted within the EU Maritime Strategy Framework Directive project where main approaches were harmonised -; and the First Report on the Implementation of the Black Sea Action Plan, the ‘State of the Black Sea Environment’ Report.
Regarding cooperation with other regions, she highlighted a fruitful cooperation with the Danube Sturgeon Task Force on cooperation to implement the program for sturgeon revival in the Danube region and the Black Sea region, also holding a seat as a BONUS Project Advisory Board member, and creating remarkably close – although informal so far – cooperation with the HELCOM Secretariat. The speaker particularly distinguished cooperation with the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) Secretariat. Since December 2016, the UNEP/MAP Secretariat had been supporting several activities under the EU-funded Marine Litter MED project to strengthen bilateral collaboration in the field of marine litter management. Ms Makarenko hoped for similar bilateral cooperation with the Baltic Sea region organisations.
Professor Christoph Humborg discussed the question whether the Baltic Sea ecosystem was just a victim of climate change or if it could be part of the solution. Professor Humborg referred to the IPCC intergovernmental panel on climate change report, ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’, accepted by the IPCC in September 2019, which underlined that due to climate change, the ocean would be higher, warmer, more acidic, see heat waves, hold less oxygen, be less productive and less predictable. Another report he recommended to be read by the delegates was ‘The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services’ by the IPBES. Both reports featured a summary targeted specifically at policy makers. Regarding the situation in the Baltic Sea, the speaker explained that the Baltic was a unique sea. The water exchange there took 30 years while only three months in the North Sea. Therefore, nutrients and contaminants had a huge effect on the ecosystem of the Baltic Sea. Another factor mentioned by the expert was the low salinity of the Baltic Sea in comparison to the open ocean. That meant that species in the Baltic Sea could hardly survive in those difficult conditions and, consequently, were sensitive and susceptible to nutrification and climate change. Another challenge listed by the expert was the eutrophication that led to algal blooms and dead organic material at the bottom. That material was converted to methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 25 times that of CO2. Measured over a 20-year period, methane was 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. In the second part of his presentation, Prof Humborg spoke about possible ways to improve the situation. First, the efforts to protect coastal areas had to continue.
At this point, he mentioned a success story: the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus contaminates in the Baltic Sea due to common action in the framework of the HELCOM Baltic Action Plan. Another possible remedy against existing threats might be keeping the nutrification low and restoring carbon-rich ecosystems consisting of seaweeds and other organisms to build resilience.
In his final message, Prof Humborg underlined that a healthy coastal sea was critical to achieving global targets to limit climate change.
Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby shortly briefed the participants on the activities of the newly formed BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity. The Working Group had held its first meeting on 16 November. Invited to the meeting had been several experts who had given the Working Group valuable information regarding different aspects of climate change and biodiversity but also examples of best practices. The WG members had been informed about the outcome from two recent conferences of fundamental importance: the ‘Our Baltic’ conference on 28 September and the UN Biodiversity Summit on 30 September. Ms Tenfjord-Toftby pointed out that the theme of the Biodiversity Summit, which had gathered heads of state and government, had been an ‘Urgent Action on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development’ – to highlight the action at the highest levels in support of the development of the CBD post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
A good practice example presented by the speaker was the project ElectriVillage implemented by the Mariestad Municipality. She explained how this was an excellent example of how local communities, in the most practical sense, could take actions to live up to the climate goals of the Agenda 2030. ElectriVillage was an ambitious project aiming to produce solar-powered hydrogen as an environmentally friendly fuel. The project clearly showed that even a small municipality could decide to make large investments to take responsibility and contribute to a sustainable society.
Another topic discussed at the first BSPC WG CCB meeting and reported to the joint meeting participants was the scientific research on climate change. The warming of the planet was an indisputable fact. There was currently no scientific explanation for the observed global warming that did not consider the increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. In the current situation, the Paris Agreement and its central aim to limit global warming to well below 2 °C was of the utmost importance, and it was necessary for the agreement to be fully implemented by all nations.
In the concluding part of the meeting addresses, were made by Mr Constantin-Catalin Zamfira (Romania), Chairman of the PABSEC Economic, Commercial, Technological and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Mr Pyri Niemi (Sweden), President of the BSPC.
Mr Zamfira reiterated that in the difficult times of the pandemic, it was necessary to unify efforts and to strengthen the cooperation and the fruitful relations between both organisations. The COVID-19 pandemic had substantially affected global progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which had already been uneven, with growing inequality, rapid climate change, and economic hardship on the rise. The pandemic – with its triple effect on health, education, and income – was threatening to bring about a decline in fundamental areas of human development in all parts of the planet. The response of the states in fighting the virus had been to close their borders and impose restrictions on movement in order to stop the spread of the virus. He allowed that the worldwide lockdown had certainly helped fight the virus and save lives, but it had also triggered a global recession, much worse than during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The economic downturn from the pandemic had been estimated to be the deepest experienced by our societies since World War II.
The speaker nevertheless noted that the pandemic had made people aware of their common destiny, highlighting the need for cooperation between nations and regions on a global scale and the need for practical solidarity. That challenge could be a driving force to review the priorities at the global level in relation to the problems that humanity was facing, such as climate change, biodiversity, and environmental protection. Mr Zamfira referred to the main problems facing the Black Sea region such as the degradation and pollution of the environment and the Black Sea itself. He underlined the efforts of the assembly to implement urgent concentrated action.
Concluding his speech Mr Zamfira expressed his gratitude to all participants for their contribution to the successful organisation and completion of the meeting. He expressed his strong belief that strong cooperation between the PABSEC and the BSPC would further continue to be fruitful, constructive, and full of success.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi thanked all participants for making the exchange possible and for enabling the cooperation between the BSPC and the PABSEC to continue and deepen, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasised that only through such meetings, the parliamentary dimension of international cooperation could be maintained and made visible. He hoped a live meeting in Stockholm would be implemented at the end of May 2021.