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Future strategic priorities for the Barents cooperation

State Secretary Torgeir Larsen speech on the future of The Barents Cooperation.

Dear colleagues and partners,

I am very pleased to be back in Harstad – and to be able to celebrate 20 years of successful cooperation in the Barents region with you.

Our focus should be on the future – but for a moment let us also look back on our common history. As we now move into the future, we have concrete and historic results to build on.

When the Barents Cooperation came about, the Cold War was over. Positive developments had occurred prior to the signing of the Kirkenes Declaration in January 1993, but tensions and unresolved border disputes remained. Cross-border contact at intergovernmental level within the region – not least between Norway and Russia – was still limited, even though northern counties and municipalities had initiated cross-border cooperation. It was this regional vision rooted at the local level that Stoltenberg, Kozyrev, Väyrynen and other foreign ministers were able to give national priority – and geopolitical importance – when they established the Barents Cooperation 20 years ago. This was a unique initiative and the timing was perfect.

However, changing mental maps is challenging. The ambitious cross-border vision was initially met with scepticism – not least among cynical Cold Warriors. But history has proven them all wrong.

The Barents Cooperation represented a new approach to foreign policy. The primary focus shifted. An army-to army perspective was replaced by a people-to-people one. The northern regions – with their indigenous peoples – became the main drivers in promoting cooperation across borders. Decisions on cross-border cooperation were to be made closer to the people in the northern regions, often without the prior approval of their capitals. Interpersonal cooperation developed, and started to break down deep-rooted suspicion. Putting people-to-people cooperation first remains one of the key strengths of today’s Barents cooperation.

The overall results have far exceeded our expectations. The Barents Cooperation has been important not just for Norway, and not just for the Barents Region. It has been important for Europe as a whole – because it has served as an example of successful post-Cold War cooperation across old dividing lines.

As for Norway and Russia, it is obvious that our 2010 agreement on the maritime delimitation line in the Barents Sea was inspired by the atmosphere of increased cooperation and trust created by the Barents Cooperation. The agreement also demonstrates to the world how neighbours in the High North are able to resolve disagreements: peacefully and based on international law.

Let me then turn to our cooperation today and our ambitions for the future.

Regional authorities, indigenous peoples and local communities remain vital. These groups are the DNA of the Barents Cooperation, which today covers a wide variety of activities, geographically and thematically – ranging from the environment, to business, to culture.

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that could affect their rights, their development and their traditional land. I therefore support a further strengthening of indigenous peoples’ representation within the Barents Cooperation.

In this Cooperation, the main task for governments should continue to be the facilitation of regionally and locally based cross-border cooperation.

I believe there are four areas of the Barents Cooperation that will be of key importance in the years to come.

  1. Cross-border mobility
  2. Education and research
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Environment and climate change

First, successful cross-border cooperation depends on cross-border mobility. Obstacles create problems for industry, commerce and people-to-people contact. A lot has been accomplished, but further facilitation of the cross-border movement of persons, goods and services will and must continue to be a cornerstone of our cooperation.

The method used should be the same as before, practical and step by step. Such as the simplified Norwegian-Russian local border traffic regulations that were introduced last year. In this context, the experience of our Barents neighbour and Schengen partner Finland has been important for Norway. Finland processed more than 1.2 million visa applications from Russian citizens last year.

In Norway, too, we are witnessing a substantial increase in cross-border traffic.

In 1990, 8000 people crossed the border between Norway and Russia. In 2012, this number was 252 000.

Step by step we are moving towards our long-term goal of establishing a visa-free travel regime with Russia.

Second, education and research. The Barents region has, due to its resources, significant potential as an engine for economic growth in Europe. This is a region of resources: minerals, energy, fisheries and other renewable marine resources. The region is already Europe’s most important supplier of metal, and prospects for increased activity and cooperation in all areas are good. Again, the future role of the Barents Cooperation is to further facilitate activity in the region, and cooperation on education and research will be key.

Skilled and educated citizens from all parts of the Barents region are needed. In order for us to make use of our common potential we need to stimulate the generation of knowledge – and the right competence. The populations in the north are relatively small, which means that shared knowledge and strategic cooperation on education and research are vital.

We are on the right track – the number of students participating in exchange programmes and cooperation programmes has increased.

Let me give you one example – the number of Russian students registered at Norwegian higher education institutions: in the autumn of 2000 there were 183; in the autumn of 2012 there were 1500. These students contribute to the diversity and quality of Norwegian higher education. And, let me add: they contribute to deeper and broader relations between Russia and Norway.

I am sure other Barents countries can report similar developments.

What we in particular need to see more of is collaboration at the institutional level across borders. Closer cooperation among the educational institutions in the North will be key to developing the knowledge and networks needed for grasping the opportunities in this region and for effective economic cooperation.

The ongoing trilateral cooperation between the University in Tromsø, the Northern Federal University in Arkhangelsk and Umeå University can serve as an example of good practice. Together, these institutions are building centres of competence in biotechnology, law and pharmacy – areas of importance to the Barents region.

We would like to see this cooperation expanded to include other universities in the Barents region, such as Oulu University in Finland.

Third, enhanced economic activity in the region requires improved infrastructure. There can be no doubt about this: the infrastructure networks between east and west need to be further strengthened.

This month, my government presented a white paper on transport. We plan to improve railway lines and cross-border roads in the Barents region.

Increasing the capacity of the Ofoten railway line is one of our priorities – this line links Narvik in Norway to Kiruna in Sweden. Today there are 18 trains running in each direction – but there is a need for more. Our aim is to increase capacity to 27 trains.

At the same time, the upgrading of the E105 road between Kirkenes and Murmansk is continuing on both sides of the border, as a result of close cooperation between the Norwegian and Russian authorities.

The desire to improve transport networks is shared by all the Barents countries. We have therefore taken the initiative to develop a joint transport plan for the whole region, as explained yesterday by Mr Torbjørn Naimak from our Public Roads Administration. This will be the first joint plan between all Barents countries ever made.

Lastly – but not least: Sustainable development of the resource-rich Barents region requires that the limits of the fragile environment and the integrity of the ecosystems in this region are respected. It is vital to strike the right balance between economic growth, sustainable use of natural resources and responsible exploitation of non-renewables – and to do so within a framework that respects the rights of this region’s indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage.

Neither should we forget that some of the new opportunities in the Barents region are partly a result of climate change. Climate change is bad news for all of us – as we do not yet know the real long-term consequences of it. Therefore, it is vital to integrate the climate dimension into all parts of the Barents Cooperation. We must both adapt to the changing climate and limit the emissions that cause climate change. This is why we are now developing an action plan for climate change in the Barents region.

The Barents region has a legacy of resource-related industrial pollution that we still have to deal with. Together, the countries of the Barents region are addressing some of the main environmental problems in the region together, and I am glad to say that the first environmental “hot spots” have been eliminated. For example, a large quantity of toxic pesticides stored in the Russian Republic of Karelia has been safely destroyed in Finland. The work on the further elimination of environmental hot spots is a key task and must continue.

To sum up,

It’s been 20 years since the Kirkenes Declaration was signed.

On 4 June this year, when our prime ministers meet in Kirkenes, they will sign a new declaration.

The new declaration is not meant to replace the one from 1993, but rather to supplement it. 

The model of the Barents Cooperation should remain the same – pragmatic, concrete, and rooted at the local and regional levels. Our main job, as national governments, is to provide the framework needed for cross-border activity and development to prosper.

Input from this conference will form part of the final process of negotiating the declaration. But as highlighted, I believe emphasis will be placed on mobility, education, environment, research and infrastructure – issues of importance to all forms of activity and development in the region.

But Kirkenes will also be a scene of celebration – because there is reason for all of us to be proud of what has been accomplished in this part of Europe. Today, the High North represents a beacon of hope and ambition in Europe. Take employment as an example. In Europe’s most southern region, Andalucía in Spain, 36 per cent of the workforce is out of work. In Europe’s north-eastern corner – Sør Varanger county, which includes Kirkenes and the Barents secretariats – the unemployment rate is 1.7 per cent. This is no accident – it shows that there has been a different trend in the High North than in the south of Europe.

Finally, I would like to express our appreciation for the contributions made by our members of parliament to shaping the Barents region. Parliamentary involvement has proved to be crucial in promoting cooperation across the borders in the North. It is important that you continue to play this role in the time to come.

Thank you.


State Secretary Torgeir Larsen