There is a clear majority support in the Norwegian parliament for a radical change of the Norwegian regional-administrative structure. Practically all political parties agree that a major reduction in the number of counties is needed. Governing Concervative Party and the Progress Party even want a full abolishment of the regional level of power.
A change in the Norwegian county structure will affect also the Norwegian participation in the Barents Cooperation. Today, the three northernmost Norwegian counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark, through their elected leaders, are represented in the Barents Regional Council and the executive Barents Regional Committee.
In addition, the counties are the owners of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, a resource center for Norwegian-Russian regional cooperation.
The reforms of the Norwegian county structure should now be used as impetus for new looks and reforms of the Barents regional structure.
For the Barents Secretariat’s part, the abolishment of the county structure would imply the need for a completely new ownership structure.
However, the termination of the counties’ ownership does not necessarily mean a weakening of the Secretariat. Rather the contrary. Afterall, practically all the Secretariat’s funding is provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo, while the counties themselves do not provide a penny neither to the management of secretariat, nor to its main grant financing program.
As a matter of fact, the exit of the counties from the Secretariat could help clean up a messy involvement of dubious regional political interests in secretariat ownership.
Such a polical interference is damaging not only to the work of the secretariat, but also to the Barents Coooperation as such. Afterall, international cooperation in the region must be based on sustainable systems of managment and clearly predicable institutions of government.
An ownership change in the Norwegian Barents Secretariat should be used as an opportunity for a streamlining of secretariat structures in Kirkenes. The existance of a Norwegian Barents Secretariat along with an International Barents Secretariat (IBS) is highly confusing to everyone except the ones themselves working in the two bodies. Futhermore, the two secretariat have partly overlapping responsibilities.
Measures should now be taken to merge the two secretariats into one united structure. This can be done smoothly without hampering current responsiblities or functionality. The new joint barents secretariat must have a management structure which meets the needs of both the multilateral interests in the region and the interests of main sponsor Norway. It can have one or more autonomous units operating the cross-border financing schemes.
BarentsObserver.com, the online newspaper of the Norwegian secretariat, must be taken out of the structure and given an independent life as newsmaker and producer of analytic material.
A joint secretariat would be far better fit to follow up the important Barents Working Groups, and also take a stronger lead in the practical follow-up of the Barents Regional Council, the body which includes regional leaders from the the 13 Barents administrative-territorial entities.
The change in Norwegian county structure will neither hardly negatively affect the Norwegian participation in the Barents Regional Council. Afterall, both Sweden and Finland have a regional government structure which is based on far bigger territorial units and with a stronger national-level system of regional government
Similarly on the Russian side, where the governors rule over huge entities with millions of people under strong auspieces of federal authorities.
In its more than 22 years of being, Barents Cooperation has clearly been a success. Thousands of regional government officials, NGO representatives, students, researchers, cultural and sports participants have got to know each other and established long-lasting friendships and cooperation.
However, also the cooperation structures must adjust in line with the times of change. The regional cross-border cooperation must be made a robust as possible to handle an increasingly challenging east-west environment.
The current Norwegian counties are about to outlive their role in the Norwegian regional governance and in the Barents Cooperation structure alike. Now is the time to let new and more professional and sustainable instruments of regional management and cross-border cooperation prevail.