Ladies and gentlemen,
I should like to begin by thanking you for this opportunity to speak to you today. As the Icelandic government minister for Nordic co-operation, I play a part, together with my colleagues in the other Nordic countries, in formulating policy for the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), which is the forum for co-operation between the Nordic governments. During the past 15 years, the council has been involved to a considerable extent in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I should like to give an account of this activity and mention some of the important changes that are currently taking place in this work.
The involvement of the Nordic Council of Ministers in the Baltic countries began with the visit of the council’s secretary-general to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius in January 1990. Before that, Nordic parliamentarians had been in contact with their counterparts in the three Baltic countries and had urged the Nordic governments to make a contribution towards reconstruction and democratic development in the region. The political situation in the Baltic countries was sensitive at the time, and the Nordic countries were not united in their position. For example, Finland favoured a cautious approach, while Iceland stepped out and became the first nation to recognise Lithuania’s declaration of independence in March 1990. The Nordic Council of Ministers, on the other hand, proved to be a neutral forum where the Nordic countries could work together to help with reconstruction in the Baltic region. As early as 1991, the council opened information offices in the three Baltic capitals, flying flags bearing the motif of the Nordic swan. The council’s first Policy for the Adjacent Areas was adopted in 1996. This also extended to north-western Russia, where the council had opened an information office in 1995. Thus, the Nordic Council of Ministers was the first international body to enter into collaboration with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The original aim of the council’s activities in the "adjacent areas" was to support Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in all the massive social changes that followed on their recovery of independence, and also to promote security and stability in the region, to encourage democratic development and the growth of a market-driven economy and to introduce the inhabitants of the region to a lifestyle based on sustainable development. Another important aim was to work for an improvement in people’s standard of living and to open the way for "people-to-people" activities involving citizens of the Nordic countries and the Baltic states. And finally, I should mention another aim that materialised at a later stage, which was to help the three Baltic countries to meet the conditions set for joining the European Union and NATO.
In the 15 years since this beginning, the Nordic Council of Ministers has devoted a considerable proportion of the Nordic countries’ budgets to this worthy cause. Thus, of the total Nordic budgets, which amount to more than DKK 817 million (817 million Danish kroner), about DKK 150 million have been channelled into a wide range of activities in the Baltic countries and north-western Russia.
Funding has been allocated in recent years under the Adjacent Areas Policy for projects that have been carried out jointly by parties in the Nordic countries and the Baltic states or north-western Russia. These projects have been of many types, the common factor uniting them being that they have been intended, in one way or another, to promote the basic aims of the Nordic Council of Ministers which I mentioned earlier. They have included special projects devoted to children and young people, health protection, sustainable development and environmental protection, consumer affairs, the promotion of democracy, gender equality, education and research and cultural exchange programmes of many types.
The Nordic Council of Ministers’ information offices in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius have played a key role in all this work. As I mentioned earlier, these were opened in 1991, and have long since become firmly established. Branches of these main offices were opened in various localities in the Baltic countries a few years after the main offices themselves were opened. The offices are very much involved in implementing projects for the council. They ensure that contacts are established with the correct parties and that the projects are really of benefit to local people.
A considerable part of the funding available under the Adjacent Areas Policy has been devoted to exchange programmes organised by the council in the Baltic countries and north-western Russia. These exchange programmes began on a very small scale in 1991, but have grown steadily with each passing year and have become very popular. About 500 people from the Baltic States and north-western Russia now take part in them every year.
I should like to say very briefly what these exchange programmes consist of.
Nordplus Nabo (Nordplus Neighbour) and NorFa Nabo (NorFa Neighbour) are the names of two Nordic grant programmes that were set up in 1991 with the aim of making it possible to establish contact networks between universities and scientists in the Nordic countries, on the one hand, and the Baltic States and north-western Russia on the other.
Civil servant staff exchanges are extremely popular. These are organised solely through the information offices in the region. Last year, applications from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania received priority, since the aim was to build up a contact network and improve knowledge in connection with these countries’ admission into the European Union.
NordProLink is an exchange scheme with a special focus on the business and professional sector. It is also administered by the council’s information offices. The aim is to invite young people from firms in the Baltic States and north-western Russia to participate in working exchanges in small and medium-sized companies in the Nordic countries.
I mentioned earlier that parliamentarians had established contact with their counterparts in the Baltic States at an early stage, and later did the same with those in north-western Russia. The Nordic Council (Norðurlandaráð), as the common forum of the Nordic parliaments, is in charge of the Council of Ministers’ exchange scheme that is specially intended for parliamentarians. The aim of this scheme is to make the experience of parliamentary work and representative democracy that has been gained in the Nordic countries available to the parliaments in the Adjacent Areas to our east. In this connection, particular importance is attached to an active and mutual exchange of opinion on a basis of equality between the Nordic countries and the Baltic States, and it is also seen as a priority to increase the involvement of parliamentarians from north-western Russia in this scheme.
Sleipnir is a travel-grant scheme aimed at increasing mobility of young artists in the Nordic countries and their Adjacent Areas.
To close this review of exchange schemes, I should like to mention one that is specially designed to promote collaboration between scientists in the field of energy production. Scientists and other specialists can apply for grants to develop active knowledge and information networks in their areas of specialisation, and grants are also available to increase scientists’ mobility in the Baltic States, the Nordic countries and north-western Russia.
In this review I have mentioned only a few of the funds that make grants to stimulate contact and collaboration between people in the Nordic countries, the Baltic States and north-western Russia. The Nordic grants system is quite extensive, and the number of options open to applicants from the Adjacent Areas has increased from year to year. Clear information about these schemes is available on the homepages of the information offices.
Great changes have taken place over the past 15 years. The situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is now completely different from what it was when the Nordic Council of Ministers began its work there, and a considerable upswing is now being predicted in the years ahead in the countries bordering the Baltic. But even though things have been developing smoothly, this does not mean that the Nordic Council of Ministers’ task is finished. On the contrary, the council has been planning moves to stimulate further Nordic contact and collaboration with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the coming years. On the other hand, the great social changes that have taken place in the region call for certain changes in the pattern of this collaboration.
Ever since it was clear that the Baltic States would become members of the European Union, it has been understood that the Nordic Council of Ministers would have to revise its approach to these countries in order to observe greater equality between all concerned. In a spirit of co-operation with the governments of the Baltic States, new policy guidelines have been laid down for the Council of Ministers’ specialists to follow when establishing contact with parties in the Baltic States. Although these guidelines do not officially enter into force until the end of this year, they have already started to have an effect. Perhaps the clearest sign of this new chapter in the relationship between the Nordic countries and the Baltic States is the fact that the latter are now joint owners of the Nordic Investment Bank. This change occurred at the beginning of this year.
Without doubt, the most important change in the new policy guidelines is the fact that in the future, it is envisaged that both Nordic and Baltic parties will participate in formulating policy and deciding on projects to be tackled, and also that the financing for these projects will come from both sides. Nordic-Baltic benefit will be used as a guiding principle when entering into joint ventures; this is an extension of the Nordic benefit principle that is commonly used as a criterion for approving joint ventures between the Nordic countries themselves. The intention is that both parties will contribute funding to joint ventures when it is to their mutual benefit to tackle them jointly rather than separately. As I mentioned earlier, the present Adjacent Areas Policy will come to an end at the end of 2005. After that, there will be no special allocation in the Nordic budgets for the Adjacent Areas in the form that there has been since 1991. The exchange schemes I spoke about earlier will remain unchanged, but it will be up to committees under the individual specialist ministries to evaluate the Nordic benefit of joint projects involving Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania and to grant Nordic funding for them out of their own budget allocations. The same will apply to the Baltic States. It is our hope that collaboration will continue in all fields where we have common interests. As I have mentioned, these new guidelines have been made known to the Baltic authorities, and there is great interest on both sides in maintaining collaboration in many professional areas.
As you may be aware, Iceland and Norway are not members of the European Union. Nonetheless, both countries are closely associated with the union through their membership of the European Economic Area (EEA). Iceland, Denmark and Norway are members of NATO; Sweden and Finland are not. Despite these differences, the Nordic countries maintain close consultation on European affairs and other matters of foreign policy. The Nordic Council of Ministers has proved to be a good forum for discussion for this purpose, and will continue to be so in the future.
In an expanded European Union, with 25 member states, regional collaboration will assume ever-greater importance. Now, when models are being sought for the huge tasks of reconstruction that face modern Europe, great attention is being focussed on the collaborative mechanism that the Nordic countries have been developing ever since 1952. Nordic collaboration has never been a single fixed entity – it has developed in step with the evolution of European politics and the changes that have been taking place within the European Union. As more emphasis is being placed on regional collaboration in Europe, new opportunities are opening up for local collaborative organs similar to the Nordic Council of Ministers. It is now becoming a more accepted view that the Nordic countries and the Baltic States, and also other states bordering on the Baltic region, should work together to make this into a powerful regional unit within the European Union. In this way, a vision of vigorous regional collaboration on the northern borders of the European Union has grown up. This is not to say that the intention is to try to establish a power block within the union – but there is no ignoring the fact that the interests of small nations in the same region must coincide in many ways, taking into account the fact that these nations share the same basic terms of existence.
The Nordic Council of Ministers’ interest in developing vigorous regional collaboration in northern Europe can be seen in the council’s involvement in the EU’s Second Northern Dimension Action Plan, which covers the period 2004-2006. The geographical boundaries of the "northern dimension" are: Greenland and Iceland to the west, north-western Russia to the east, the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea to the north and the southern shores of the Baltic Sea to the south. Those involved in the implementation of this plan are, in addition to the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) and the Arctic Council (AC). Far closer consultation has developed between the Nordic Council of Ministers and these bodies in recent years, and constantly greater importance is being attached to co-ordinating their activities in Northern Europe and establishing a clear division of roles and responsibilities.
The Northern Dimension Action Plan embraces a great number of social and economic factors that affect the lives of the people living in this region in spheres such as health, security, measures to combat organised crime, reforms in the Kaliningrad area, improvements in administration, environmental protection and measures against radioactive contamination, collaboration on energy production, cultural affairs and employment.
The Nordic Council of Ministers has also made it a priority to take part in the development of cross-border co-operation between the Baltic States, Poland, Russia and Belarus. Co-operation of this type is important as a means of preventing the emergence of new lines of political, economic and social division along the external borders of the European Union. Regular consultation and "people-to-people" measures are a good way of achieving this aim. A large-scale experimental project, designed to cover several years, is now about to be launched. This is the Baltic Euroregional Network – BEN. It will be financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), and it is also hoped that some funding will be provided under the EU’s budget, Interreg IIIB 2005-2006. A lot of interest has been expressed in this idea, and well over thirty parties have already become involved in it. If all goes according to schedule, it will be launched later this year. It will be directed from the Nordic Council of Ministers’ office in Lithuania, and information on it will also be available on the homepages of the offices in Estonia, Latvia and St Petersburg.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have spoken a little about collaborative projects in which the Nordic Council of Ministers has been involved in the "Adjacent Areas" as seen from the Nordic countries, meaning, first and foremost, the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and also, to some extent, north-western Russia. As I mentioned, the Nordic countries are keen to upgrade this work and to enhance the political side of it in all ways, and in many professional spheres, valuable skills and experience have been gained which we are keen to maintain and develop further. There is no doubt that many changes have come about since the expansion of the EU, but there is still every reason to believe that the Nordic countries, together with the Baltic States, Poland and north-western Russia, can become the strong Northern European region that is needed to balance the regions of Central and Southern Europe.