Challenged by rapid changes in their neighborhoods, Barents regional leaders should use the 20 years anniversary celebrations of the Barents Cooperation as an opportunity to reform the political cooperation structures. A five-point plan will help them on the way.
Since its establishment in 1993, the Barents Cooperation has provided a number of examples of successful cross-border initiatives. On the level of public sector and civil society, a great variety of groups have got involved in cooperative activities. On the political level, a unique model for interaction between regional authorities has been developed, one with potential applicability for other complex border regions.
The establishment of a two-pillar system of political cooperation, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council for government-level talks on the one hand and the Barents Regional Council for regional cooperation on the other, was unique when it was established in 1993, and remains so also today. Nowhere else in Europe are Russian regional politicians involved in such a comprehensive institutionalized and multilateral cooperation across the Schengen border.
However, paradoxically, in a time of unprecedented changes in the Barents Region, the interest among regional politicians in the political cross-border structure gradually fades. Hence, as the international interest in the High North grows rapidly, the main pillar for political cooperation in the region, the Regional Council, gradually loses importance as arena for cross-border interaction. Over the years, the attendance of regional leaders at Regional Council sessions has dropped significantly and the number of council agenda issues of real significance has dwindled.
As part of this year’s Barents anniversary celebrations, between champagne toasts and lofty speeches, regional leaders should use the opportunity to discuss ways how to develop the regional structures. In times of unprecendeted developments in regional industry, trade, environment and ultimately also social and economic affairs, regional authorities would greatly benefit from using the Barents Regional Council as arena for cross-border discussion, as well as joint and coordinated action.
What should be done to revitalize the Barents Cooperation structure?
In several of its recent publications, among them the Barents Review and the Ex Borea Lux?, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat proposes a number of measures which can help add prestige and give new weight to the regional political cooperation. New functions, responsibilities and incentives must be introduced in order to bring the structures out of deadlock.
The reforms can follow this five-point plan:
1. Program development. The Barents Regional Council and its Executive Regional Committee should take on a stronger role in discussions on regional strategy and development priorities and actively contribute to the elaboration of key regional cross-border programmes like the Kolarctic ENPI CBC Programme. Lessons can be learnt from Euregio Karelia, where the Euregio Board worked closely first with the Interreg steering committees and later also with the Steering Committee of the Karelia ENPI CBC Programme.
2. Project financing. The Regional Council should get a role in the selection of cross-border projects supported by multilateral financial mechanisms like the Kolarctic ENPI CBC Programme. For example, the Council can be given the mandate to undertake the final approval or rejection of Kolarctic projects.
3. Organizational change. Instead of the current rotating chair of the Barents Executive Regional Committee, a permanent body should take on this job, thus securing better continuity and efficiency. The International Barents Secretariat was opened in Kirkenes in 2008 and is the natural body to host the permanent chair. The Secretariat should itself incorporate organizational reforms, among them a principle of staff representation from all the four Barents countries, as well as the EU Commission and the regional indigenous peoples. The International Barents Secretariat should also more proactively follow up the work of the various permanent Working Groups.
4. Working Groups. The permanent Barents Working Groups, among them within the fields of youth, health and indigenous people, constitute unique core parts of the regional cooperation, which should be better taken use of as bodies of regional expertise capable of offering recommendations and advice on issues of regional development.
5. Barents Parliamentary Assembly. The idea, raised already in 1993, to establish a permanent Barents Parliamentary Assembly should be followed up, thus giving the regional cooperation a valuable new third pillar. The Assembly, which could meet on an annual basis, would include members of the popularly elected legislative assemblies in all the 13 Barents counties.
When signed on the 11th January 1993, it was far from an obvious thing that the Kirkenes Declaration would include any significant regional political component. As a matter of fact, government officials in Oslo, Moscow, Helsinki and Stockholm were highly skeptical towards such a “delegation of foreign policy powers” to their most remote territories. However, thanks to a group of active regional politicians, the role of the regions was given a key emphasis in the cooperation.
The 20 years anniversary of the Kirkenes Declaration offers an opportunity to look back, but it is no less an opportunity to look forward. Regional leaders should again come together to take new brave cross-border action.