The 31st Annual Conference of the BSPC gathered over 160 participants in Stockholm – delegates from 20 parliaments and parliamentary organisations, guests and experts from the Baltic Sea region and beyond. The Conference was the final highlight of the Swedish BSPC Presidency from 2020 to 2022 and took place in the second chamber of the Riksdag.
The situation in the region shaped the programme. The delegates, the experts and guests discussed the Future of the Baltic Sea region in a time of fundamental upheaval. They firmly stated that the answer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is strong democracies, protection of human rights and sustainable development.
The Conference reaffirmed the decisions of the BSPC Presidency and the BSPC Standing Committee to suspend the Russian parliaments. The Conference also discussed how the current situation might affect future cooperation within the Baltic Sea Region. The delegates adopted amended Statutes and Rules of Procedure to reflect the new historical circumstances considering Russia’s suspension from the Conference and its subsequent decision to withdraw as a member.
The high-level speakers reinforced the united front of democratic nations – parliaments, governments and civil society.
The opening of the Conference featured speeches by the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament, the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs and the President of the BSPC. The keynote speaker in the first session was former UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who spoke about the importance of international cooperation in times of crisis, followed by an open debate. Addresses by the Norwegian and the German Foreign Minister as current and future presidents of the CBSS and speeches by partner organisations followed that.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi opened the Annual Conference 2022.
The speaker of the Riksdag, Dr Andreas Norlén, welcomed the Conference, noting that this was the fourth time it had been held in Sweden and the first physical Conference since 2019 because of the pandemic. After COVID-19’s shadow had hung over the previous two digital Conferences, another threat dominated the present event, namely Russia’s war against Ukraine, with a huge impact on cooperation in the Baltic Sea region and the BSPC itself. The present times would affect the world for generations to come. On 24 February 2022, they had felt horror at the human suffering and rage at the unjustified war. At the same time, they had realised that the European security was undermined by Russia. The democratic countries had swiftly imposed sanctions on Russia and moved to support Ukraine. The Swedish government had provided military support and three months after the invasion had made the historic decision to apply for membership in NATO, in close partnership with Finland. Dr Norlén stressed the importance of parliaments in safeguarding democratic values and international law. Democracy and freedom of speech were prerequisites for peace. Since 1980, there had been a positive trend of more and more nations moving towards democracy. However, the past two years had seen a reversal towards authoritarianism. The BSPC Conference addressed the vital question of freedom of expression and free media. It was deeply worrying that these aspects had also suffered from backsliding. Threats against journalists were threats against democracy, Dr Norlén stressed. In these troubled times, cooperation, especially among parliaments, was becoming increasingly important, underlined by the 31 years of BSPC history. Parliament was at the heart of democracy, as the Baltic Sea was for their region. He highlighted the BSPC’s youth work, with the second Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum accompanying this conference, to give a voice to young people’s engagement, passion and courage.
The Swedish presidency of the BSPC’s theme of democratic sustainability was reflected by the 100-year anniversary of Swedish democracy. In 1918, the first parliamentary decision had been universal and equal suffrage, and the country’s yearlong celebration would end in 2022, 100 years after the first five female members of parliament had taken their seats. Democratic events in the past always seemed assured outcomes, but they should never be taken for granted. Democratic values, participation, equality before the law and trust in the democratic system had to be protected and developed.
Ms Ann Linde, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, highlighted the serious backdrop of Russia’s unjustified aggression, a flagrant violation of international law. Sweden and the democratic community demanded that Russia cease its invasion and unconditionally withdraw immediately from the entire territory of Ukraine. The repeated attacks by Russians against civilians were appalling. All violations of international law had to be systematically documented and investigated. Respect for the fundamental role of international law was at the core of all international and regional cooperation. Russia had for the foreseeable future disqualified itself from all such cooperation. The democratic nations’ support for Ukraine had to continue during and after the war. Ms Linde pointed out the increased repression within Russia, restricting freedom of expression and other human rights, with Russian state media offering a distorted image of reality. Whenever the respect for democracy was compromised, the risk of armed conflict around the world increased. Where there was accountability through free media, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary or the risk of being voted out of office, there was restraint for governments’ use of violence. Therefore, cooperation to protect the region’s democratic institutions was of the utmost importance. They had to unite behind those whose voices had been silenced by the Russian aggression – free media, independent journalists and human rights defenders. In 2019, Sweden had launched a Drive for Democracy as a foreign policy priority that should be taken up around the Baltic Sea.
Russia’s break with cooperation came at a time when climate change and other global threats had increased the need for collaboration. Sweden was determined to continue the important work of the CBSS through its Action Plan, highlighting three vital areas: firstly, supporting Ukraine through combating human trafficking; secondly people-to-people cooperation, not least with the young people; thirdly, the environment where the Stockholm +50 conference had given new impetus to the green transition.
The democratic countries of the Baltic Sea region had to work together to preserve their freedom and open societies.
In his opening remarks, BSPC President Pyry Niemi reflected on the hope a year before that the vaccine would bring better days. Now, though, they were facing a brutal war in Europe. As proud as he had been the year before of the BSPC’s continued cooperation, he highlighted this year’s fast and united response to the horrifying situation. On 25 February 2022, President Niemi, Vice President Johannes Schraps and Secretary General Bodo Bahr had at once adjourned the Standing Committee meeting planned for 28 February. In a statement of that day, they had condemned the Russian military attack, appealing to Russia to cease its aggression and arrive at a peaceful solution. On 12 March, the heads of the BSPC delegations had reiterated this. Furthermore, they had decided to freeze all their relations with the Russian member parliaments of the BSPC. In April, the Standing Committee had reaffirmed the statement and the suspension of the Russian parliaments as well as amending their Rules of Procedure to underline the BSPC’s peace-oriented core values based on international law. Earlier that morning, the Conference had adopted these revised rules.
The BSPC’s main goal for thirty years had been to overcome the Cold War and contribute to stability and prosperity in the whole Baltic Sea region. The current war had energised the need for cooperation. The BSPC had to remain to promote democratic development in the region.
The current Swedish presidency followed the headline of sustainable democracy and had focused on common challenges in a changing world. Preserving the democratic cornerstones of the BSPC had been their priority throughout the year. These were also connected to the Swedish parliament’s celebration of 100 years of democracy. That reminded them that the right to equal representation, the right to vote and democratic values could not be taken for granted but had to be defended every day. Trust in the democratic system, inclusion and participation were further vital pillars of the presidency, as evidenced by the second Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum the Saturday before. The sixty participants represented the future of the Baltic Sea region – the title of the current conference.
President Niemi mentioned the efforts of the BSPC towards a closer cooperation with the Baltic Sea NGO Network and highlighted the preceding November’s statement voicing the BSPC’s concerns about the situation at the Belarusian border with Poland. The war in Ukraine had dominated the April meeting of the Standing Committee in Warsaw, with a focus on the migration of refugees out of Ukraine. Climate change and biodiversity had been on top of the BSPC’s agenda through their working group. The BSPC’s cooperation with partner organisations had been further deepened, among them the CBSS and HELCOM as well as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, the Nordic Council and the Baltic Assembly.
It had been said that the Baltic Sea was not just a sea but a bridge between neighbours. The cooperation was largely built around concrete issues concerning the sea, the heart of their region. More than that, it was about political democratic dialogue between neighbours and friends. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had wounded the work of the BSPC. However, with new strength and revised Rules of Procedure, the BSPC would continue to fight for democracy as well as environmental sustainability, in many ways stronger than before.
Peaceful and reliable neighbourliness and intense cooperation in times of crisis
BSPC President Pyry Niemi introduced the incentive speaker, Mr Jan Eliasson, the former deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and former minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. In light of the greatest challenges of this generation – the pandemic, the cruel war in the middle of Europe, an upcoming catastrophic global famine as well as the ongoing climate crisis, made the speaker’s input all the more valuable.
Mr Jan Eliasson saw the world at a crucial moment in history, with their actions of great significance for their countries, the region, Europe and the world. In light of Russia’s brutal aggression, he highlighted Ukrainian resistance and resilience. He saw this as a challenge for all of them to show courage and resilience in standing by Ukraine. The stakes were high – the sovereignty of Ukraine, the European security order, the cohesion and strength of the EU and of NATO, the respect of international law and principles and norms for international cooperation, global food safety, and most importantly, the standing of democracy. Democracy was fighting an uphill battle today, in light of backsliding from democracy or authoritarian systems becoming totalitarian. All of this made for a serious agenda for all of them. The people of the Baltic Sea region could look back at a very long period of collaboration, for reasons of geography, history, interests – economic, political, social – and today, the shared values.
Mr Eliasson stressed how the outcome of the Second World War, with the UN Human Rights Charter, the Charter on Refugees, had shown the world another direction history could take. Yet the Cold War was another outcome, a dark time that came to end with the Fall of the Wall, bringing independence to previously Soviet-controlled nations. After that, there was a period of hope and expansion of possibilities. The current Russian move was trying to change everything in a drastic manner, yet Mr Eliason saw several positive aspects on which could be built: Democratic nations were united more than ever by interests but also by values. Multilateralism could be strengthened to fight three major battles in the world: the existential issue of the climate crisis, the fight for democracy and international cooperation. In his view, the most important word in the world was “together”.
Mr Himanshu Gulati from Norway raised Sweden and Finland’s application for NATO membership, asking Mr Eliasson about further paradigm changes in the European security system. The speaker saw particular potential in the future of the Arctic which could be a playground for power interests, but he saw it important to maintain principles, such as environmental concerns, in that regard. The primary result, though, was that the Nordic countries were now unified and could play a much larger role vis-à-vis the EU and NATO.
Ms Bryndís Haraldsdottír noted a change of the dynamic in the Arctic Council in which Russia was faced by all-NATO countries now. Mr Jan Eliasson stressed that international rules had to be enforced in an active approach by the other countries of the Arctic Council.
Mr Johannes Schraps of Germany wondered how a lack of communication could be overcome in the long run. As former deputy secretary general of the UN, Mr Jan Eliasson pointed to the principle of universality in that organisation. He believed in a strong reaction to a blatant breach of values, yet it was up to every organisation to determine how to improve conditions.
Mr Kai Mykkänen of Finland and Prof Jānis Vucāns of Latvia and the Baltic Assembly wondered about the future protection of the Baltic States. Mr Jan Eliasson did not see the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO making a significant difference as Sweden had already cooperated in security affairs with the Baltic States. He highlighted the united popular front of Poland and in particular Germany as well as the regional parliaments in their military support of the Baltic States. There was a tremendous potential in Baltic Sea cooperation, despite the ongoing war.
Mr Kacper Płażyński from Poland called for more heavy weapons to be transferred to Ukraine to prevent the war from lasting many years. Mr Jan Eliasson agreed that if the Russian aggression was not meant with credible military opposition, Russia could meet its goal. On the other hand, he cautioned against escalation that might spill over the boundaries of the current conflict. As a life-long diplomat, compromise in this conflict likely meant ceding territory and thus breaking international law. This dilemma was extremely complicated to resolve.
BSPC Vice-President Johannes Schraps explained that the following speeches would focus on their work in general, their values and fundamental challenges.
In a video message, Ms Anniken Huitfeldt, the Minister of Foreign Affairs from Norway, pointed out that the Russian war against Ukraine had changed the map of Europe, not least through Finland and Sweden’s likely joining of NATO. Both the BSPC and the CBSS had suspended the membership of Russia in their organisations, allowing the democratic countries to move forward. In the Kristiansand Declaration, the foreign ministers of the CBSS member states had stated that Russia bore full responsibility for the war, acknowledging Ukraine’s enormous suffering and sacrifice in defence of their sovereignty and freedom. Ms Huitfeldt underlined that the CBSS regional networks against trafficking in human beings, for the protection of vulnerable children and the civil protection network were active in their support of the Ukrainian refugees.
Yet the issues that had been of importance before the war continued to be crucial and had to be tackled to keep the Baltic Sea region globally competitive. Some 30 years of history of both the BSPC and the CBSS had shown the value of integration and cooperation in accelerating the region’s rapid development. The European Green Deal and REPower EU would provide speed and direction for the next step, the green and digital transformation.
German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Annalena Baerbock, spoke via a video message to the Conference about the value of cooperation among the democratic countries around the Baltic Sea. As upcoming president of the CBSS, she reflected on that organisation’s renewed importance in the present time of upheaval, highlighting its strategic value, not least in terms of energy. To that end, the German government had set three priorities for their presidency: firstly, a massive expansion of offshore wind power in the Baltic Sea in order to secure the energy supply, supported by a Baltic Offshore Forum with stakeholders from the public and private sectors to initiate concrete wind power projects; secondly, the intensification of youth work by turning the Baltic Sea Youth Platform into a permanent institution, accompanied by a Youth Ministerial Meeting in the run-up to the Ministerial Session of the Council, dealing with digitalisation, the climate crisis and the green transition; thirdly, the removal of the vast amount of sea-dumped ammunitions from the Baltic Sea through bringing together relevant experts to accelerate the recovery of these munitions. Ms Baerbock reiterated the need for Europe to stand together against Russian aggression, both at the moment and in the recovery period.
The current chairman of the CBSS Senior Officials from the Norwegian presidency, Mr Olav Berstad, was on hand to answer questions. BSPC Vice President Johannes Schraps wondered if the topic of sea-dumped munitions had already been deepened at the Kristiansand meeting.
Mr Olav Berstad spoke about the Kristiansand Declaration with its strong message of unity, highlighting also the safe and secure CBSS priority as well as a move away from fossil fuels, Russia withdrawing from the cooperative framework after the Cold War, the 30 years of progress since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Vilnius II Declaration providing a roadmap until 2030, with the hope that Russia would catch up and meet the goals in the future. The topic of ammunitions had not been raised; Mr Berstad pointed out the presence of sea-dumped munitions in the North as well as the Baltic Sea.
BSPC Vice President Johannes Schraps moved forward to the addresses from other parliamentary assemblies and BSPC observer and partner organisations.
The President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM), Hon Gennaro Migliore, highlighted the long-standing friendship between the PAM and the BSPC, as evidenced by their Memorandum of Understanding signed in November 2021. The Russian aggression had led all of them to reconsider what was the most secure environment for their countries. It represented a turning point in world history. PAM had condemned the invasion as early as 24 February 2022. International law and the UN Charter had been broken by a member of the UN Security Council. Around 15,000 suspected war crimes had been reported in Ukraine in the course of a cultural genocide, reminiscent of Nazi Germany before World War II. PAM had worked to establish a regional distribution hub for aid for refugees in Romania. Mr Migliore pointed out the food crisis triggered by the Russian war that could lead to famine and new conflicts in the Euro-Mediterranean area as well as Africa. He believed that interparliamentary work would contribute to ensuring the necessary political commitments to address these challenges and pave the way towards future actions. The PAM stood with Ukraine not just for their but also for the democratic countries’ survival.
Ms Cecilia Widegren, the Vice President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), noted that the IPU and the BSPC shared the same aim and mission – stability, peace and security, democracy, freedom, sustainability and prosperity. The IPU was the parliamentary dimension of the UN. She noted that the IPU had received a total of 8 Nobel Peace Prizes. Moreover, Ukraine was also a distinguished member of the IPU, receiving support from that organisation. She pointed out that there were more than 70 conflicts around the globe at this moment, more than there had been after World War II. Members of parliament had a task to fulfil in pursuing peace, alongside governments and civil society. In that regard, she highlighted the role of dialogue between opponents that could be opened by parliamentarians.
Ms Josefin Calring, the secretary-general of the Baltic Sea NGO network, explained that a closer and deeper cooperation between sectors of society was necessary in a time after a pandemic and during a war. Civil society had worked tirelessly to meet the needs of refugees, mostly women and children, proving the role of NGOs in acute measures but also as civil defence both within and across borders. Trust was generated through people cooperating but could not be taken for granted, as had been shown during the pandemic. Ms Calring underlined that it was the people who were responsible for shaping the future they wanted to live in. Rather than talking about visions, urgent actions were required among and between people, civil society, business, academia and politics. A strong and vital civil society was the foundation for a strong democracy, the protection of human rights and sustainable development. It had to be involved, invited and prioritised in decision-making, provided with long-term funding and political will. The Baltic Sea NGO network stood ready to do its part for a more integrated Baltic Sea region.
Ms Annika Annerby Jansson, President of the Regional Assembly, Region Skåne, also pointed out that the Russian aggression against Ukraine was an attack on shared values such as democracy, peace and cooperation. It showed the world that these values were fragile and had to be protected; moreover, it also showed them the strength and willpower of coming together in cooperation. She highlighted the incredible actions by NGOs, cities, regions and their national and European associations in Europe and beyond, providing shelter for refugees and emergency support for their Ukrainian neighbours. But it was also important to begin thinking about how to go forward in supporting the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine. Ms Jansson highlighted the importance of cooperation. This was reinforced by the upcoming launch of the initiative European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the reconstruction of Ukraine, an international coordination platform, co-led by the European Commission and the Ukrainian government. It would serve to facilitate peer-to-peer cooperation and twinning partnerships between cities and regions within the EU with counterparts in Ukraine. Furthermore, it created a more secure framework to minimise the risks that local and regional authorities could expose themselves to by undertaking individual initiatives with Ukraine in an ongoing context of conflict. The official launch was planned at the next CoR plenary at the end of June.
Ms Janssen reminded the Conference that multi-level governance was even more important in times of crisis, recalling the migration crisis of 2015 when regions and municipalities had dealt with the unprecedented flow of refugees. She hoped that this multi-level cooperation would be just as important in the future of Ukraine.
Earlier than her planned participation in a later session, Ms Lilian Busse, outgoing chairwoman of HELCOM, addressed the Conference about biodiversity. The German presidency had been dominated by the corona pandemic as there was only a single in-person meeting, ending in a difficult geopolitical situation. However, the new Baltic Sea Action Plan had been adopted in the preceding October, with 199 actions and measures to be implemented by 2030. At the same time, a regional action plan on marine litter had been adopted as well as one on underwater noise and the HELCOM Science Agenda. The Baltic Sea Action Plan dealt with biodiversity, eutrophication, hazardous substances and litter as well as sea-based activities. The horizontal or cross-cutting issues were monitoring, marine-spatial planning, economic and social aspects, knowledge exchange and awareness-raising, hotspots, financing and climate change. Ms Busse pointed out that all the 199 actions and measures fed into the overarching concern of climate change. A large number directly affected biodiversity, such as the implementation of the Science Agenda, closing the knowledge gap on blue carbon, developing a strategic approach on ocean acidification but also developing work under HELCOM to limit the greenhouse gas emissions. Under the header of sea-based activities, she mentioned sustainable shipping, with an eye on the greenhouse gas discussions of the IMO.
HELCOM and Baltic Earth had produced the Baltic Sea Fact Sheet as a summary for policymakers on the latest scientific knowledge on how climate change was currently affecting the Baltic Sea. It provided information on existing knowledge, what had yet to be determined and the political relevance in several indicators.
The actions and measures of the Baltic Sea Action Plan had to be implemented on an ambitious level while the knowledge gaps outlined in the Fact Sheet had to be filled. The present geopolitical situation was making this difficult, Ms Busse conceded. Since 24 February, HELCOM had postponed all meetings and instituted a strategic pause until the end of June when the chairmanship would be handed over to Latvia. They were currently in discussions how to move forward during these difficult times.
Pre-Session on administrative matters
BSPC President Pyry Niemi welcomed the attendees to a special session devoted to approving the decisions made in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. In light of the unwarranted Russian aggression, the BSPC Standing Committee had decided to suspend the memberships of the Russian parliaments in the BSPC and to change the BSPC Rules of Procedure to reflect the historical importance of the moment and to allow for the suspension or expulsion of members violating the fundamental principles of the BSPC. President Niemi noted that the ongoing efforts to track a new course for the BSPC without Russia had proceeded at a fast pace. That also concerned that the Russian parliaments had withdrawn from the BSPC. Therefore, the Conference approved the suspension of the Russian parliaments from the BSPC.
The amendments to the Rules of Procedure mainly concern fundamental additions. These are also expressed in the new name ‘Statutes and Rules of Procedure’. These include the fundamentals and core principles to which the BSPC has unanimously committed itself in a series of resolutions as defined foundations of its cooperation. Furthermore, now the procedure is regulated if a Member State blatantly violates the foundations and core principles by the flagrant violation of the rules of international law. Further regulations result from the suspension and withdrawal of the Russian parliaments. Additionally, administrative adjustments to the decisions on the BSPC strategies and work programmes have been made on this occasion.
BSPC Vice-President Johannes Schraps underlined that it was crucial for the BSPC to express the reasons behind their decisions to the public in a declaration.
BSPC Secretary-General Bodo Bahr read out a draft declaration to explain the changes and the historical context in which the amendments were made.
Prof Jānis Vucāns and Ms Bryndís Haraldsdottír contributed to the debate.
The Conference adopted the new Statutes and Rules of Procedure which were supplemented the next day by an adaptation of a further rule on administrative matters and agreed to publish the mentioned declaration in conjunction with the publication of the new Statutes and Rules of Procedure.