Opening statement by Secretary of State Torstila at Seminar on Visegrád Regional Cooperation

Opening statement by Secretary of State Perti Torstila at Seminar on Visegrád Regional Cooperation in Hungarian Cultural Institute in Helsinki on 5 November 2013

Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to open this seminar.

Regional co-operation in our continent has changed dramatically during the past decades. A wide range of sub-regional groupings have emerged in Europe and regions nearby. They work as reform and cooperation promoters inside their respective sub-regions, they help the region to address transnational and shared challenges and they build bridges over the dividing lines between regions and continents. The key question in each case is how to create added value inside the region itself and avoid overlap in today’s integrated Europe. There are many common features in the various regional models and it is useful to make comparisons in order to learn from one another. I will start with regions in Finland’s vicinity and end my talk with remarks on the Visegrad Four cooperation.

Nordic Cooperation

The Nordic cooperation results of centuries long traditions and interaction. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, share strong communality based on same values, history, culture and geography. For centuries these countries have been interlinked in peace and war. There is a strong popular support in enhancing the cooperation in all areas of human activity. We also share a common feeling of solidarity – a need to help each other when necessary. This was witnessed recently in Iceland’s economic problems when the other Nordic states agreed to loan nearly two billion euros to help Iceland’s struggling economy. People not only trust each other, they also hold their national institutions, the police, the legal system and the state in high esteem.

To the outside world the Nordics are known as a block brand, thus making us stronger and more visible than we would be as single, individual states. Our societies belong to the most prosperous countries with healthy and long-living people. The Nordic countries occupy top positions in various country rankings from economic performance to welfare and happiness.

 After the Second World War, the demand for structured and formal cooperation was born due to practical needs. A passport union was formed to alleviate travelling for the citizens, and a shared job market was created, necessitating the strengthening of collaboration between the social security systems of the countries in question. Cooperation widened and deepened. Once the Nordic Council was founded and the Helsinki agreement signed in 1962, the political collaboration gained an institutional structure.

The two backbones of the Nordic partnership are the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The Nordic Council was founded in 1952 and Finland joined it in 1955. The Nordic Council of Ministers, founded in 1971, is the intergovernmental organ of the partnership. The main responsibility for it lies with the prime ministers of the countries. In practice, Nordic cooperation tasks are carried out by the Ministers for Nordic Co-operation as well as the Nordic Committee for Co-operation, which is responsible for the daily coordination of the official Nordic political collaboration.

From the outset, the goal of the Nordic co-operation has been to facilitate and increase the possibilities for living, working and starting businesses in and between the Nordic countries, as well as strengthening the position of the Nordic countries globally. Concrete challenges, such as removing cross-border barriers hampering the free movement of individuals between the member countries have been in the center of discussions. A great number of questions have found good and satisfactory answers. Still many remain and we need to prevent and alleviate problems arising from the EU legislation as Norway and Iceland are not EU members.

Alongside the economic and social sectors also the dimension of foreign and security policy continues to develop. New impetus has been found in the follow-up to the Stoltenberg Report, and through the Nordic defense co-operation, NORDEFCO, where Finland is the chair country in 2013. There will be increased Nordic competence, participation and preparedness in civilian and military crisis management, training and co-operation in procurements. A telling example of this is the participation of the Finnish and Swedish air forces in training activities relating to the airspace surveillance of Iceland in 2014.

The future of the Nordic co-operation looks bright. Significance of the High North and the Arctic regions is growing. Together we want to raise our profile as experts in Arctic issues. Each country is committed to work jointly in all fields of human activity. Varying situations regarding memberships be it in the European Union, the euro or NATO, form no unsurmountable obstacles to further develop our cooperation. Cooperation through the institutional channels of the Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers is traditional, but there are other, supplementary and flexible forms of cooperation as well. For instance, the five Nordic ministers for foreign affairs and defense meet regularly in the so-called Nordic 5 meetings.
Nordic-Baltic Cooperation

A vibrant and productive cooperation between the Nordic and the Baltic countries is of more recent history. Previously in the 1990’s it was called 5+3, today it is Nordic Baltic NB8. The first ministerial meetings between these eight countries were held in 1991 immediately after the three Baltic countries had regained their independence.

The prime ministers, foreign ministers and defense ministers meet yearly. Other ministers do it on an ad-hoc basis. Leading civil servants, state secretaries, political directors and others gather at meetings and conferences several times a year. The NB8 takes pride in being flexible. No new bureaucracy or secretariat has been created or needed. Presidencies rotate, new initiatives come quick and state organs put them into effect. In 2010 two prominent personalities from Denmark and Latvia presented a report containing 38 recommendations on how to advance cooperation amongst the NB8 countries. Last spring a nuclear emergency exercise was organized, opportunities for diplomats from one NB8 country to work in the embassy of another NB8 country have been provided and topical issues such as energy cooperation are constant themes on our agenda. During this year special attention has been devoted to the Eastern Partnership, Russia, cyber security and energy issues.

The NB8 looks also beyond its borders and wishes to broaden the scope. Last February the foreign ministers of the eight NB countries and the four Visegrad countries met in Gdansk in Poland. The meeting proved to be useful and Estonia will host the next meeting of these two regional groups in March next year.

Baltic Sea region

The Baltic Sea region is today named by many as the new Hansa.
The Council of the Baltic Sea States is the political forum for regional inter-governmental cooperation. The Members of the Council are the eleven states of the Baltic Sea Region as well as the European Commission. Most are EU member states, but the Council includes Iceland, Norway and Russia too. The role of the Council is to serve as a forum for guidance and overall coordination among the participating states. Since 1998, the CBSS Member States have financed jointly the Permanent International Secretariat of the CBSS in Stockholm.

In July this year, the CBSS Presidency was taken over by Finland. Our aim is to give particular accent on issues related to maritime policy, civil protection and people to people contacts. The main event of the Finnish Presidency is the CBSS Summit, to be held in Turku in June 2014.

The Baltic Sea and its many questions are very much present in the work done in and by the EU as well. The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is the first macro regional strategy in the Union. It represents a new way of intensifying coordination and cooperation across different levels and sectors and between the countries in the region. It strives to take full advantage of the opportunities which working jointly in a coherent manner can bring to the citizens of this region and to the EU as a whole. It builds upon the already existing versatile cooperation networks and with the existing resources it aims to maximize their output. In June 2009, at the initiative of the European Commission, eight Baltic Sea Member States signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan. Connecting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania better to wider EU energy network and the other EU countries is the main priority of the BEMIP Action Plan.

The example given by the Baltic Sea Region has been followed elsewhere. A second macro regional strategy has been developed for the countries in the Danube region. Last December the European Council gave the Commission the task to prepare a strategy also for the Adriatic and Ionian region by 2014.

The Baltic Sea Region Strategy itself has just undergone a review with efforts to make its implementation more efficient. One crucial fact is that in our region progress with the strategy can only achieved in close cooperation with the neighbours that are not EU member states, namely Russia, Norway and Iceland.

Visegrad Group (V4)

The Visegrad Group, this dynamic quartet, presents to us in the northern part of Europe another interesting example for regional cooperation. We are eager to learn from the Visegrad experience, and when possible, think of ways to put into practice the successes achieved in its cooperation. Lessons and experiences can be many. Bringing up the problems encountered and having an open exchange of views on them is of great value when trying to learn more.

There are of course unique features in each region and therefore not everything is transferable to other situations. The challenges we face in the northern parts of Europe may differ due to for example geographical or climatic considerations. However, there is great merit in showing others how an issue can be effectively addressed together with neighbouring countries in any regional group format.

The Visegrad Group was established in 1991 in a situation where the political and economic landscape in Europe looked quite different from what it is now. I followed the first steps of this new cooperation from an ambassador’s role in Budapest in 1992-1996. The Group then worked towards the goal of becoming members in NATO and the European Union. During these processes the Group members gained valuable experience, which they now can share with others having the same goals. The Group has become a key consultative framework for the Western Balkans region during the past years. One excellent example of this is the recent accession of Croatia to the European Union. It is well known that Croatia during its accession process enjoyed strong support from the Visegrad Group.

It will be of great interest to hear more, in the course of this Seminar, about the concrete plans and projects the Visegrad Group and its Member states in helping other countries in the region aiming at becoming EU member states.

During our seminar today, I hope for innovative ideas about how to increase synergy and even pool resources among regional partners. The Visegrad Group cooperation is closely followed outside the region itself and indeed by Finland. Sharing your best practices and highlighting new ways to bring about solutions is valuable. That is what we are here for. I look forward to the exchange of ideas.

Thank you.