In its twentieth year of existence, the Barents Cooperation is standing at a crossroads.
Since 1993, the Barents Cooperation has stimulated relations, built trust and knit bonds of friendship across the borders in the Barents Region. Cross-border cooperation has brought Norway, Russia, Sweden and Finland closer to each other and can be seen as one of the underlying factors, which prepared the ground for the historical delimitation of the Barents Sea.
Still, the Barents Cooperation is today standing at a point where the need for direction and clear objectives is growing.
Never before has developments in the Arctic moved with the magnitude and speed of today. Proportionally with ice melting, shipping picks pace and grand industrial activities are put in the pipeline. These activities are multilateral in the scope and have implications, which stretch far beyond the borders of the respective states.
The Barents Region is at the threshold of a new era, one of growing big power interest in regional resources, and of industrial expansion and subsequent environmental challenges. The need for multilateral action and concerted cross-border policies might never have been more important in this most densely populated part of the Arctic.
Truly, one of the main pillars of the Barents Cooperation, the project-based cooperation between people and civil society groups is more vigorous than ever. But the political Barents Cooperation, the cooperation, which includes ministry representatives and regional leaders from the four Barents countries, is in limbo.
In the Barents Regional Council, the body, which assembles regional leaders and their administrations from all the 13 territorial entities in the region, the absence of Russian and Nordic governors has become the rule and not the exception. The leaders are absent also in other parts of the cooperation. In last year´s Barents Council session in Kiruna, Sweden, none of the Russian regional leaders attended.
Paradoxically, the international interest in the Barents Region seems to grow disproportionately with the interest in the Barents Cooperation. While the world is increasingly turning its eyes on the potentials of this resource-rich, beautiful and promising cross-border region, the regional leaders themselves appear to lose interest in their counterparts across the border.
How can the Barents Region and its politicians gain influence and become instrumental in cross-border regional developments?
The Barents Review, the new publication issued by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, proposes several concrete measures on how to strengthen the regional cooperation.
Among the recommendations is the stronger role of elected regional parliamentarians. The book proposes to establish a permanent joint meeting place and discussion forum for representatives of all 13 legislative assemblies. The book also recommends that the Regional Council is strengthened with a permanent leader of the managing Regional Committee, and that representatives of the Regional Council to a greater extent are included in relevant political processes in the region. The publication also proposes to strengthen several of the permanent Barents working groups as cross-border expert bodies within their fields of expertise.
Well-tailored incentives are needed to make the Barents Cooperation structures more efficient. The Barents Review recommends that the Barents Cooperation, also on the regional political level, to a greater extent includes also offshore issues, and especially issues of rescue and emergency preparedness.
Norway is the country, which chairs the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in its 20th year of existence. Being the main initiator of the Barents Cooperation in 1993 – to what extent will Norway now seek to use the structures of the Barents Cooperation as platform for international action?
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is the architect of the Norwegian High North policy, and has already opened the door for new Barents initiatives. In his speech at the Barents Council session in Kiruna, he announced the elaboration of a Kirkenes Declaration II, a new basic document for the regional cooperation. That document should also include points, which promote the development of both cross-border political structures and civil society in the region.
The Barents Cooperation has played an important role in its 20 first years of operation. It has a great mission also in the future.