Once again in digital form, the parliamentarians of the BSPC came together for their anniversary conference and were joined by high-ranking government officials. The morning half of the conference addressed cooperation in the Baltic Sea region, democracy in a changing media landscape as well as a general debate on re-starting after the COVID-19 pandemic.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi opened the 30th Anniversary Conference of the BSPC.
Dr Andreas Norlén, Speaker of the Swedish Riksdag, delighted in 190 people from many parliaments taking place in the conference, despite living in interesting and challenging times. Much had changed in the past 30 years, among other things economic growth, democratic development but also financial crises and backsliding democracies. The present pandemic had underlined the need for parliamentary cooperation, with the BSPC taking a lead in switching to digital conversation. For Dr Norlén, parliamentary cooperation and democracy dovetailed with Sweden celebrating the centennial of its own democracy. By understanding history better, participation and trust in the democratic institutions could be improved but should never be taken for granted. He also underlined the worth of intergenerational cooperation as paving the road for the future. The Speaker emphasised that democracy should and could never be taken for granted.
Ms Ann Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, noted that democratic institutions and parliamentary cooperation were vital in times of backsliding democracies and human rights, especially considering how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the area around the Baltic Sea. Human rights and the rule of law were key goals of Sweden. The Drive for Democracy initiative of Sweden had been providing a counternarrative to the erosion of democracy, highlighting how democracy protected the people and gave them a voice in their country’s development. The freedom of opinion and expression were fundamental and had to be defended on all levels, much like activists for human rights. Environmental change also required international cooperation, such as the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan.
President Niemi pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic had not only affected their professional work but also their private lives. Nevertheless, he was glad that the BSPC had been able to continue its cooperation via digital means and without suffering interruptions. He highlighted democratic institutions, solid cross-border cooperation and environmental and social sustainability as cornerstones of the BSPC. The president outlined several of the undertakings of the BSPC in the past year, such as two seminars held online on important topics. Focus points of the parliamentarians’ discussions included democracy in a changing media landscape; the COVID-19 pandemic with particular regard to the situation and progress on vaccination but also how the disease had affected youth employment; demographic changes, labour shortages and an ageing population. Climate change and biodiversity had taken up a goodly share of the efforts, primarily through the BSPC Working Group established on this issue. Another major pillar of the BSPC, the president explained, was its cooperation – not just among each other but also increasingly with other parliamentary organisations such as the PABSEC and the PAM. Moreover, involving young people in decision-making was another principal concern, which had led to the latest Baltic Sea Youth Forum held two days earlier. Cooperation across borders, across organisations and across generations, in a familiar and friendly atmosphere, was the foundation of the BSPC’s success.
First Session: Cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region
BSPC Vice-President Johannes Schraps chaired the first session, traditionally concerned with cooperation in the Baltic Sea region. Peaceful and reliable neighbourliness and intense cooperation built on inclusive participation and trust in the democratic system were the goals of the BSPC. Neighbouring nations sharing in these values was vital for cooperation and progress.
Ms Ine Eriksen Søreide, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway, Norwegian Presidency 2021–2022 of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, underlined the great importance of interparliamentary cooperation. She saw such conferences as checking the pulse of cooperation. Living in a time of major change and major challenges, global fault lines and rivalries were exacerbating, with added disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation in Afghanistan was one example. The climate crisis would raise new and persistent migration challenges, she pointed out. The green agenda – such as the European Green Deal – had to be seen as more of an opportunity for growth and progress rather than a burden. Democracy, human rights and rule of law had to be cornerstones of their activities, and learning from the past had to aid them in countering negative trends through cooperation across borders. The Baltic Sea region, she underlined gladly, was a prosperous region, due in many respects to the region’s close cooperation. The minister further highlighted regional identity, conversation between the generations and the fight against human trafficking. Baltic cooperation was marked by its focus on practical approaches. With regard to Belarus as an observer state to the CBSS, the use of force against protestors and increasing tension between neighbours was deeply troubling. She called on Belarus to return to the rule of law and the values of democracy. Ms Søreide underlined again the need to involve young people in decision-making, like the Baltic Sea Youth Forum or the Norwegian Youth Panel.
Mr Michael Roth, Member of Parliament and State Minister for Europe, German Presidency 2022–2023 of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, underlined their desire to reinforce cooperation between governments, parliaments and civil society. He highlighted three topics of major importance for Baltic cooperation: European general values; the protection of climate and environment; the youth. In terms of the Baltic Sea’s environmental status, Mr Roth pointed out that sea-dumped ammunitions were a particular danger but offered the opportunity for the Baltic Sea region to become a forerunner in cleaning up the sea. In all these areas, the BSPC was a fundamental partner.
Session chairman Schraps saw these contributions as evidence of the BSPC having worked on the right issues in their recent work.
Second Session: Democracy in a Changing Media Landscape
Pernilla Stålhammar of Sweden took over the chair, noting the backsliding of democracies in their region as well. Democracy was more than free elections but also free expression of opinion and a vivid political opposition. Digitalisation had made the spread of information easier and faster: On the one hand, this allowed greater cooperation and lowered entry barriers. On the other hand, there was an increased risk for fake news and misinformation. Again, the COVID-19 pandemic had reinforced both opportunities and challenges.
Ms Margareta Cederfelt, President, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), highlighted the development of media information – from the 9/11 attacks televised live over embedded journalists reporting on the Iraq war to citizen journalists of today providing all kinds of perspectives beyond any administrative control. At the same time, this had given rise to disinformation – especially in social media – as a threat to democracy. Media control – whether through station ownership or availability to government or opposition – was another vital issue. However, fake news – as propaganda – was indeed ancient, only employing a new channel. New media provided a tool that allowed both wider and more personal conversations. Ms Cederfelt raised the topic of Belarus as the internet has given succour and aid to the opposition efforts as well as the population at large. Greater media literacy was necessary to enable the people to better distinguish between proper and fake news. To that end, the speaker called for standards of reporting to be applied both to traditional and new media. Freedom of speech and media was vital.
Prof Dr Jeanette Hofmann, Weizenbaum Institute Berlin, spoke about how digitalisation and democracy were connected as well as current tendencies regarding the regulation of platforms. Digitalisation was usually regarded as the driver of democratic change as it was seen as the root of the decline of mass media, the rise of hate speech and fake news. In her view, that was the wrong point of view since digital media were invented and used by human beings. Therefore, digitalisation and democracy should be seen as two entities shaping each other. Democratic change concerned aging institutions – with declining trust in e.g., political parties or voting – but also expanding and new institutions – as evidenced by people wanting to participate in new ways, through movements such as Fridays for Future, and political participation centred around issues rather than long-term structures. Another fundamental change was the growing importance of the public sphere and digital media, becoming more interactive, offering venues for criticism and approval of government action beyond elections every four years. A new phenomenon were so-called platform parties, often springing up quickly and without firm membership, that might offer new, experimental organisational structures without hierarchical structures. Therefore, democratic change was also driving digital development. These evolutions led Prof Hofmann to speak about the need for new rules to regulate the digital space. Enforcement was important, to make sure that illegal contents were removed but also ensure transparency reporting not just about complaint management but also the explanation of algorithms and their functioning. Beyond these recent legal measures, Prof Hofmann emphasises the importance of involving human rights. For example, human rights could be extended to include digital platforms. In addition, powerful rights to appeal should be established on digital platforms. Moreover, victims of defamation or hate speech had to be provided with institutionalised support.
Mr Oleg Nilov, MP, State Duma, Russian Federation, spoke about different perceptions of issues and/or people. He raised examples like Navalny being seen as a freedom fighter in Europe but as a corrupt traitor within Russia but also the recurring forest and tundra fires in the Russian federation. In that respect, he called for joint international standards to represent reality rather than applying double standards. Mr Nilov hoped that they could be more honest and less biased with each other. Especially, he wished to avoid Russophobia and Russia-bashing.
Mr Erik Halkjaer, President of the board of the Swedish section of Reporters Without Borders, said that democracy continued to be under attack in most nations around the Baltic Sea. Journalists were being killed, even in the European Union. Harassment and hate speech, both from private but also official actors, were primary concerns. He cited the term of an “infodemic” affecting the present situation much like the COVID-19 pandemic. A “hurricane of disinformation” had descended not only on journalists but the entire population, making it more vital to see transparency of platform algorithms but also an easier spread of verified journalistic reports rather than unverified sources. To that end, Reporters Without Borders had established a tool for such verification – which in turn required traditional media to be more transparent in their methods and procedures as well. Disinformation was best fought by secure sources and by investment in trusted journalism. Mr Halkjaer regretted that some countries in the region were using methods to make journalism more difficult, such as Russia which required reporters to register and was blocking sites. He insisted that such negative measures were sensitive and preferred positive measures – the proverbial carrot rather than the stick – to promote good journalism, rather than having to decide what was fake news and what was proper information. In the same vein, he mentioned Belarus and its disinformation campaign against Lithuania. It was crucial for journalism to verify sources from more than one point of view.
Ms Cederfelt offered her agreement with several of her preceding speakers, supporting calls for transparency and safety of journalists. Regarding the comments by Mr Nilov, she rebutted that for instance, the forest fires in Siberia were part of the international efforts to counter fire disasters all over the world and for another instance that the Crimea situation was subject to international agreements which were unilaterally disregarded by the Russian Federation.
Prof Hofmann added that the news pipe of young people had to be acknowledged as a means of self-expression. User-generated content was a difficult concept – the term itself was insufficient. Much as it could support democracy, it could equally erode it. The protection of human rights was vital as was the enforcement of laws against disinformation and hate speech. In her view, none of them was able to distinguish truth and lies as the sole arbiter. These were new issues that needed to be investigated in-depth so that regulation would not harm the freedom of expression.
Mr Nilov addressed Mr Halkjaer, saying that he agreed with the opinion that bad examples were dangerous. He stated that such bad examples were originally used actively against Russia by western media. Regarding Ukraine and Crimea, he proposed Kosovo as a precedence case, assigning criminal actions to the country. While such actions should not happen anywhere, the reasons were to be found elsewhere.
Mr Halkjaer conceded that this was no Russian invention. He agreed with Mr Nilov calling Mr Assange and Mr Snowden victims of disinformation campaigns and that fake news should be opposed across the board.
General Debate: Re-Starting After the COVID-19 Pandemic
Chaired by Mr Arvils Ašeradens, MP of Latvia, the general debate would deal with a great variety of topics, such as the pandemic and its effects, the responses on the economic and governmental front. Mr Ašeradens explained the present situation in the Baltic States which had had to deal with similar hard hits on economic sectors through the second lockdown. Support measures had eased difficulties to some degree, along with stimulus packages to revitalise the economy. These had a particular focus on implementing a green approach.
Mr Arnoldas Pranckevičius, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, in his keynote speech referred to the just-finished Lithuanian presidency of the CBSS. He saw four lessons in the aftermath of the pandemic: The climate crisis had not disappeared but had become even more important. It had to be tackled by all nations so that a climate-neutral Europe could indeed be achieved by 2050. The second lesson was digitalisation, giving rise to the phenomenon of the world being connected more closely than ever before but at the same time individuals living in strictly separated spheres or “tribes”. Bridges had to be forged between these communities, along with cyber security and data privacy. Migration represented the third lesson, as controlling migratory flows – such as streaming out of Afghanistan at the moment – would be a major challenge of the 21st century. Moreover, migration being used as an instrument by Belarus posed a new aspect of the issue. Joint measures and proper routes for asylum seekers were crucial. The fourth phenomenon he wished to underline was that there had been a retreat of democracy in several areas around the globe, including Europe, so that it was necessary to speak more rather than less about human rights, rule of law and the shared values.
Mr Wille Valve of Aland pointed out that the BSPC on its 30-year anniversary had withstood the test of time, evolving into a role model of sorts for such parliamentary organisations. Yet the environment of the Baltic Sea still required attention as eutrophication led to toxic algal blooms with regularity. Previously established measures had already brought about some reliefs, such as wastewater treatment plants or the banning of cruise ship wastewater dumping. While phosphorus inflow had been curtailed to some degree, much more could and had to be done to reach a healthy state of the Baltic Sea. Increased joint efforts were needed as they owed that to their children.
BSPC Vice-President Johannes Schraps of Germany underlined Mr Valve’s contribution. Parliamentary pressure on governments was what could assist in this effort. He equally underlined the success of the BSPC as expression of Baltic cooperation. Yet huge challenges remained. These could only be resolved through parliamentary cooperation, not only with each other but also with governments and civil society. The Green New Deal of the EU was one example of a new joint effort to resolve modern problems, such as the environment. The old approaches from before the pandemic should be refined into new and different methods to tackle the present challenges.
Mr S. Perminov agreed in cheering the 30-year anniversary, adding that the present topic of opposing the pandemic and paving the way out was very much on the political mind of the Russian Federation as well. He agreed that the Baltic Sea’s environmental condition was topmost on the Russian agenda as well, pointing out a recent measure to reduce nutrient input into the sea. Regarding digitalisation, he joined the call for common rules and regulations. These would become even more important in the future, and he urged his listeners to view the future through a positive prism.
Mr Jonas Faergeman, representative of the Baltic Sea Youth Forum, noted that young people viewed the climate as by far the most important issue of the area. For the past six decades or so, there had been resistance to enacting measures against climate change. Yet during the COVID crisis, measures had been put into place extremely quickly, and Mr Faergeman hoped that similarly fast and competent action would be taken on other urgent issues as well, especially climate change.