How can we strengthen political cooperation in the Barents region?
“Future strategic priorities for the Barents cooperation”
Vicepresident Othmar Karas, European Parliament
6th Barents Parliamentary Conference, Harstad (Norway)
23 April 2013
Dear Members of Parliaments,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
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• Let me start by thanking the Norwegian Parliament for this invitation
and for hosting this event. It is a pleasure for me to address this
meeting as a representative of the European Parliament, an institution
that regards the Barents cooperation as a focal point for regional
cooperation in the Arctic and Northern Europe.
• The Barents cooperation is so far the only intergovernmental
cooperation in the Arctic region, in which the EU fully participates.
The European Parliament is a founding member of the Barents
Parliamentary Conference as well as the Conference of Arctic
Parliamentarians. The European Commission is directly involved in
the Barents Euro Arctic Council as one of the signatories and as a
• Despite our integration so far, I would like to highlight that this year is
of key importance for the EU Arctic policy. The Ministerial meeting
of the Arctic Council in Kiruna next month will decide on the EU's
application for a permanent observer status in the Arctic Council.
• The observer status would allow the EU to intensify cooperation and
increase a positive contribution to the work of the Council. It would
also allow the European Union to gain detailed understanding of the
concerns of Arctic partners and complement the EU's Arctic
engagement through the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the
• I would like to take this opportunity to thank in particular the
government of Norway for their strong support for the EU's
application. I would also ask our other partners, who are present here
today, for the support of our Arctic Council application.
EU's experience with the Barents cooperation
• The EU's view of the cooperation in the Barents region is extremely
positive. In an area of military confrontation during the Cold War
close cooperation has secured long-term stability and reduced possible
tensions. It has fostered a new sense of unity which is an excellent
basis for further progress. The Barents cooperation has proven to be
an important forum of EU-Russia cooperation so far.
• It has also greatly facilitated the development and implementation of
the Northern Dimension initiatives. Barents Regional Council in
particular has developed a broad range of activities which are relevant
to the Northern Dimension within the fields of environment, health,
economic cooperation, etc.
• I would also like to underline that the Barents cooperation has been
successful thanks to cooperation between regional and national levels.
The unique two pillar set-up of cooperation in the Barents region is an
interesting model to follow perhaps also in other regions and contexts.
• On this occasion I would like to highlight Norway's special role in
promoting and supporting the Barents Cooperation. Moreover, the
International Barents Secretariat has demonstrated a great dynamism
and engagement with all the various aspects of Barents cooperation.
Future strategic priorities
• Let me reflect now a bit on our future priorities: climate change and
protection of our environment, the protection and support of
indigenous people, cross-boarder contacts, transport and raw
• 20 years on from the signing of the Kirkenes declaration, we have a
reason to celebrate this year's anniversary. Our joint efforts have been
crucial in contributing to our future prosperity, advancing the goal of
environmental sustainability, and increasing our mutual security.
• The main challenge for the future is to develop this cooperation
further, allowing us to fully exploit the Barents cooperation's potential
in various fields, to the benefit of its peoples and countries.
• Our strategic goals, as expressed in the Kirkenes Declaration seem
overall as relevant today as they were in 1993. This does not mean
that there is no need for reflection. New developments in relation to
technologies, resources and knowledge have clear implications for our
Climate Change/ Protection of Environment
• The Arctic region is where we face today some of world's most
serious challenges related to climate change and to the environment as
a whole, which are occurring more rapidly than in any other region of
• Last summer the sea ice extent was at its lowest since satellite
observations started. Or the melting of permafrost in the Arctic lands
may liberate huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, potentially
becoming a major driver of climate change in the whole world.
• We will therefore contribute our fair share to the agreed goal to limit
average global temperature increase to less than 2°C through enhanced
ambition before 2020 and legally binding commitments in 2015 as
agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha.
• We support greater international efforts to fight climate change,
through the development of alternative energy sources, resource
efficiency and climate change research. We also point to the need for
more cooperation in this respect. We look forward to the conclusions
of the BEAC Climate Change Action Plan.
• Environmental issues are a key component of the EU's renewed Arctic
policy. In this context, the EU remains particularly committed to
continue its advocacy for the use of highest environmental and safety
standards in the Arctic.
• The EU is also committed to support the development of Arctic
indigenous peoples and to contribute to the protection of their
traditional livelihoods for example through its cross-border
• It seems appropriate to recall that the Kirkenes declaration included a
commitment "to strengthen the indigenous communities of the
Region" and "to ensure that the cooperation (...) will take the interests
of indigenous peoples into consideration".
• The Indigenous Peoples have an advisory role both to the Barents
Euro-Arctic Council and to the Barents Regional Council and the
Barents cooperation has recognised their role by setting-up a specific
• However, their involvement could be further enhanced in cases where
their interests are affected. The EU would like to see more
involvement of the indigenous peoples in the work of the Barents Euro
Arctic Council and further support for their capacity building. The EU
will continue providing support to the indigenous people and to civil
society organisations working on indigenous issues.
Human contacts and cultural relations
• The people-to-people contact is the true foundation of the Barents
cooperation. It has helped build trust among neighbours.
• It is therefore important to further facilitate such contacts in order to
stimulate economic activity and trade in the region. That is why we
are in favour of working towards a visa-free Barents region. In our
view this should be based on the current Schengen zone's Local
Border Traffic Regime.
• With regard to specific relations with Russia in the regional context,
we must take into account the on-going EU - Russia dialogue on visa
facilitation. As you are probably aware, European Commission
President Barroso pointed out at his visit in Moscow in March that EU
and Russia are close to reaching an agreement on our upgraded visa
facilitation discussions and make progress towards a visa-free regime.
• Let me quickly touch upon the major issues of transportation in the
region and raw materials. As a result of the cold war and of the
traditional strength of north-south links in all the four countries
involved, transport facilities are limited and unilateral. Enhanced
economic activity and movement of persons require cooperation on
improved transport and infrastructure.
• We clearly need to continue working on improving the Barents
infrastructure, especially the east-west connections in all forms of
transport, including roads, railways, and flight and sea routes. The EU
will continue supporting that objective.
• In 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution based on the
Commission's Raw materials strategy for Europe. We have advocated
the need to reconcile extraction of materials with nature conservation
in the region, in particular based on the NATURA 2000 guidelines.
• At the same time, we called on the Commission to assess the
possibilities of environmentally sustainable exploitation of sensitive
areas that might be valuable suppliers of essential raw materials.
• Furthermore the EP supported the contribution of the region's raw
minerals to supply needs of European companies. We also believe that
there was a clear need to increase awareness of the potential of this
region in the public discussion.
• In this context, let me highlight the positive contribution to the region
by the Arctic Council under the Swedish Chairmanship due to its
focus on addressing the need for a structured business dialogue and
application of the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility in the
• When talking about the future of the Barents cooperation, we should
also talk about the funding. We must maintain and strengthen the
funding for Barents cooperation, even during the times of tightening
• The EU's funding allocated to Arctic research amounts to € 20 million
per year, making it the largest sponsor of research in the region. This
includes 15 research projects, some of which are still ongoing. Results
of this research have huge impact on the policy-making related to
climate change. The EU furthermore provides a significant amount of
funding through various initiatives to indigenous groups and local
• Additionally, the regional funding programmes invested into the
region's economic development during the 2007-2013 co-financing
period amounted to € 1.14 billion
• The EU will continue supporting cross-border cooperation. However,
we will aim to ensure that the programmes financed by the EU are
better inter-linked, effective, accessible, and meet the development
needs of local populations.
Improving cooperation and synergies
• Finally, I would like to emphasize the necessity of coordinating our
efforts with the relevant other institutions and policies, such as the
Northern Dimension, the Arctic Council and the Nordic Council of
Ministers, in order to increase synergies and avoid duplication.
• A good dialogue between the governmental side, the parliamentarian
side and the regional side is of utmost importance for the success of
• Given the importance of the Barents cooperation in fostering
prosperity, sustainable development and well-being in the region, I
would like to finish by underlining our commitment to raise the
awareness of the successful Barents, in order to ensure a long-term
political perspective of the initiative.
• I would also like to congratulate Norway for its efforts and dedication
throughout its Barents Euro Arctic Council presidency.
• I am particularly thankful for the work of the Norwegian presidency
on preparing a new Kirkenes II. ("two") Declaration, to be signed in
June this year. I am confident that this declaration will provide new
political impetus to the Barents cooperation.