Politics Member States

Regional cooperation: Baltic Blues

17 August 2009
Polityka Warsaw

Fishermen on a beach on Rügen island, Germany (Flickr.com/garibaldi)

Fishermen on a beach on Rügen island, Germany (Flickr.com/garibaldi)

Several years ago, the Baltic became the EU’s internal sea. But what kind of a sea is it? A shallow, closed, poor, one that divides rather than connects. On economic as well as environmental issues, the future of the Baltic states is bound in cooperation with neighbouring countries and with the European Union.

Geographically speaking, the Baltic was a lake until relatively recently. It was only a sudden climate warming about 10,000 years ago that melted the glaciers freezing the north of Europe and raised the Atlantic sea level by several dozen metres – enough for the ocean to spill over to the Baltic lake and create one of the world’s youngest seas. Originally, the Baltic was much larger than it is today, covering much of Sweden and Finland. It withdrew from that position only when the huge masses of ice had melted, and Scandinavia, until then buried under the ice’s enormous weight, rose higher and higher.

So here is a sea that for five years has been the EU’s virtually inner basin. But still everyone continues to name it differently. What for the Germans and Scandinavians is the Eastern Sea – Ostsee or Östersjön , for the Estonians is Läänemeri, or the Western Sea . The Latvians, Russians, Lithuanians, as well as Britons and Frenchmen, and following their example, the rest of the world, call it the Baltic Sea.

From ancient times through to the 17th century, the Baltic always had some à la mode export product: amber, slaves, salted herring, shipbuilding timber. The herring – like the Baltic basin’s other treasures – grain, wax, furs – was shipped by the Hanza, a trading association of over a hundred ports from the Baltic and the North Sea. In the 17th century, Sweden made an attempt to conquer the entire Baltic coast, but its dreams of turning the Baltic into an inner Swedish sea were thwarted by defeats in two major battles against Russia.

A mutual interest

Today the nine Baltic countries see their only mutual interest in environmental protection. They are united by their struggle to reduce the amount of waste they unload into the Baltic every year. Fortunately, the sea is in increasingly better condition; the number of fish living in is on the up, and its waters’ over-fertilisation due to nitrogen and phosphorus compounds is diminishing. Such compounds cause an explosion in algae growth, which absorbs enormous amounts of oxygen on decomposing. In 2002, the blue-green algae turned the Baltic into a green soup, decimating the sea’s seal population.

‘The fact that nitrogen and phosphorus compounds levels are no longer growing is a very nice surprise,’ says Prof Fredrik Wulff at Stockholm University. Commissioned by Helcom, the Helsinki Committee which monitors the Baltic’s environmental condition, he has carried out research, finding that, compared with 2007, phosphorus compounds emissions were down 3,000 tonnes and nitrogen emissions as much as 50,000 tonnes less last year. ‘The reduction in emissions, particularly of the extremely harmful phosphorus, is due to the new waste processing plants in the Vistula and Odra river basins,’ says Prof Wulff.

The quality of the Baltic waters can be improved by the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), France’s popular moule, although gourmands have little use of the Baltic mussel because it is too small. Its small size does not, however, prevent the Baltic mussel from acting as a micro-treatment plant that absorbs phosphorus and nitrogen. In the right conditions, a single mussel can filter nine litres of water per hour. A moule farm, producing 500 tonnes of mussels every eighteen months, filters about a million cubic metres of water, which means that it cleans the surrounding 25 hectares of water, absorbing up to 5 tonnes of nitrogen and 300 kg of phosphorus.

Economic hopes pinned on the EU

As many as eight currencies are in use in the Baltic basin, only Germany and Finland having adopted the euro so far. Taken together, the Baltic economy is smaller than that of California. Sweden accounts for a fifth of its potential anyway, as Stockholm is the region’s leading financial centre. Moreover, the Baltic shores are Europe’s least populated areas, lacking large ports or big cities. In all, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Tricity (Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot), Riga and Tallinn are still smaller than St Petersburg. Besides, ‘Local business doesn’t see the region. For Scandinavian companies, it still remains more obscure than the US or China, where they are likely to look for partners,’ says Mikael R. Linwaldholm, a Danish expert on innovation and social communication in business.

In this situation, all hopes for the Baltic’s future are being pinned on the EU. The European Commission has just unveiled a strategy for the Baltic Sea, a development programme for the region. It is to make it wealthier, safer, cleaner, and more accessible. The initiative sounds bold, though it is backed by no extra funds, changes in legislation or new institutions.

‘The idea is to spend well the funds earmarked on projects that are already underway,’ explains Hans Brask, director at the Baltic Development Forum. And there is no shortage of funds to spend since over 50 billion euro has been earmarked for the Baltic region in the 2007-2013 EU budget. Close to 10 billion euro will be spent on the environment, 6 billion euro on innovation and competitiveness. Some 700 million euro has been allocated for regional security improvements. The agenda provides for the creation of a Baltic energy market, which is to be made possible by the development of pipelines and power lines connecting the region’s countries.

If the plan works, it will put an end to the power isolation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, whose power grids are only  well integrated with Russia. As much as 27 billion euro has been set aside for the development of transport infrastructure, particularly in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Problems in this sector are unknown to the Scandinavians who have both the highways and a bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö. They are also thinking about building another and digging a tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn. The strategy does not mention this project, and given that it would be the world’s longest and most expensive tunnel, it is likely to remain on the planners’ desks for some time yet. What the strategy does mention though, is Rail Baltica, a rail equivalent of the famous Via Baltica motorway, which by 2013 is to connect Warsaw to Tallinn. At a time when the world is switching to high-speed trains, the parameters of the Rail Baltica, whose trains will run at a speed of 120 km per hour, are hardly dazzling. Let us also remember that a train ride from Warsaw to Tallinn takes 36 hours these days, that from Warsaw to Vilnius, 15 hours. Back in 1939, the Vilnius Express train covered the distance in five hours and forty five minutes. But still, the European Union offers the first real chance in centuries of building a new Baltic community.