Why Barents Cooperation needs a makeover

Barents Summit with Prime Ministers, Foreign Minsiters and working group members met in Kirkenes in June 2013.

OPINION: Who will ever understand why the Barents Cooperation has several supporting secretariats with overlapping responsibilities, competing grants schemes and a Regional Council with zero appeal among regional decisionmakers.


In a time of unprecedented Arctic change, one of the best-established international cooperation structures in the area is increasingly in need of revitalization and organizational reform. With new and fresh looks at regional cooperation, the organizational structures can become the much-needed tool for enhanced coordination and joint action across the borders in the European High North.

Barents success story
The Barents Cooperation has for more than two decades successfully strengthened relations between four Arctic countries. Since the formal establishment in 1993, cross-border cooperation in the region has built trust and friendship between people in the countries and provided major incentive for social and economic development.

In an Arctic region with substantial populations, well-developed infrastructure and industry, vast natural resources and functional social structures, the potential for cooperation across the borders is seemingly without limits.

In a time with rapid climate change, industrial expansion and subsequent social and economic transformation, what should be done to bolster the role of the regions and their cross-border cooperation?

Organizational reform
First of all, the two current Barents secretariats, the International Barents Secretariat (IBS) and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS), should be merged into one organization. The joint Barents Secretariat will incorporate the key functions currently operated by the two entities.

The merger will positively affect efficiency both with regard to costs and operational impact.

The establishment of the IBS in 2008 was based on a well-intended desire to enhance multilateral governance in the region. However, the IBS quickly failed to meet expectations and is today unable to take on a central role in regional relations. The Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS) has existed since the very start of the Barents Cooperation in 1993 and has followed up first of all bilateral Norwegian-Russian relations. Also the NBS is today increasingly in need of a review of its responsibilities, both with regard to its grantmaking activities and its news and information tasks.

Furthermore, to make the picture even more complex, there are additional ad-hoc secretariats established and operated by the rotating chairs of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Barents Regional Council.

The joint Barents Secretariat (BS) could include the following functions and responsibilities:

1) Barents cooperation structures. The secretariat should have key responsibilities for following up the working groups and the Barents organizational structures, among them the Barents Regional Council and the Executive Barents Regional Committee. The latter should get a permanent leader, who is based at the BS. Coordinators of key Barents priority areas, among them indigenous peoples, youth cooperation, environment, culture, health and transportation could be based at the new secretariat.

2) New leadership. The BS should be headed by an independent expert and professional manager, and not by a diplomat from one of the Barents countries. This will secure continuity and promote the necessary innovative approaches and efficiency. It should now be a priority for the involved parts to appoint a joint leader for the new entity.

3) New ownership. Models for the ownership of the new secretariat can be taken from some of the other international secretariats in the region, among them for the Baltic Sea Council or the Nordic Council of Ministers. Both the national governments and key regions should have stakes in the entity.

4) Barents-Arctic diplomacy. The BS can have a diplomacy division with diplomatic representatives of the four Barents countries. The division can have a role in training students of diplomacy in High North issues. Interns from the countries’ diplomatic schools can work at the division and regular study visits can be incorporated and institutionalized. 

5) Barents Grants. A grantmaking division should be established based on grants allocated by the countries in the region. The division should get a role also in the management of the Kolarctic funds, and facilitate coordinated approaches for the different grant schemes. It is of key importance that also the successful small-grant schemes currently managed by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat are preserved. In the big grants, the Barents Regional Council should be consulted, or even given a decision-making role.

6) Inter-regional cooperation. The successes of the Barents Cooperation can be used as examples of best practice in other European border regions. A coordinator based at the secretariat can facilitate cooperation and sharing of best practice between key stakeholders in different border regions, among them the Baltics, Balkans, the Carpathian region and Euregio Karelia.

Meanwhile, the current information activities of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat could be included in a new Barents Center with focus on the following priorities:

1. Information services. The center can be responsible for the information and web services of the new Barents Secretariat

2. Barents projects. The center can engage in information-related project grant activities

3. Barents policymaking. The center can provide policy papers and recommendations, as well as other publication on developments in the region.

4. News and information. The center can host and operate, as well as other services, like the Patchwork Barents

The reforms of the Barents structures could also include the Barents Regional Council, the entity which includes the leaders of the 13 counties and federal subjects in the region. As highlighted in a previous comment at BarentsObserver, the work of the BRC and its Executive Committee can be vitalized by giving it expanded responsibilities over several key areas in regional cooperation. Among these responsibilities can be:

1. Powers over the Kolarctic financial mechanism. The Council can be given the mandate to undertake the final approval or rejection of Kolarctic projects. It can also be invited to have an advisory role in other big project applications in the region. This will help strengthen the regional political interest in the Council.

2. Permanent chairmanship. Instead of the current chairmanship of the Barents Executive Regional Committee, the position of a permanent chair should be established. This person should be based at the joint Barents Secretariat.

3. Regional strategies. The Council should take on a stronger role in the development of regional cross-border strategies. The successful work with the Barents Transport Plan, which was approved in 2013, should be continued, also in other sectors.

The Barents Cooperation is a key part of Norway’s and the other Nordic countries’ Arctic policies. Also for Russia, the regional cooperation offers a key platform for High North cooperation with Arctic neighbors. In order to secure more successful Barents Cooperation, key stakeholders in the region should themselves initiative reforms. That will keep them instrumental in the process.