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Margot Wallström

Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Institutional relations and communication strategy

Address of Margot Wallström to the European Parliament conference on the Northern dimension

Speech on behalf of Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner at the EP Conference on Northern Dimension
Brussels, 28 February 2007

Mr. President,

Honourable Members,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this important Conference.

As some of you may know, I have a particular interest in the Northern Dimension – I was born in Skellefteå in the far north of Sweden on the Bothnian Gulf, not far away from the Arctic Circle. That makes me one of the EU’s northernmost citizens! It also gives me a personal insight into the problems and opportunities of this region; one of the most fascinating and challenging on earth.

Did you know that for most of the year this region is covered in snow and cloaked in darkness? And that the distances between points are vast? The special needs of this region require us to work cooperatively across national and sub-regional boundaries, and the Northern Dimension gives us a mechanism for doing just that and provides an exciting opportunity to take our cooperation to another level.

I’d like to use this occasion to make three points:

  • first, the importance of bringing Parliamentarians into this policy;
  • second, the wide number of areas that the Northern Dimension aims as tackling and in particular the greatest challenges facing the region – the environment.
  • third, the value of common ownership and balance;

To start with the Parliamentary dimension: I hardly need remind this audience of the vital role played by Parliaments – we in Europe are more conscious than ever of the necessity for democratic legitimacy.

So I am delighted that you are considering establishing a Northern Dimension Parliamentary Forum. Mobilising support from Parliaments across the region will be essential to ensure the new Northern Dimension Policy’s success.

I have found Parliament’s particularly helpful in promoting the value of cross-border cooperation. It is the key to economic prosperity and to tackling the common problems faced by this region: environment, health, transport, security and energy. It is also important to encourage as many different linkages around the region as possible, to promote better understanding and contribute to a better life for its citizens.

This leads me to my second point on the wide number of areas that the new Northern Dimension policy aims to tackle.

Needless to say, economic cooperation is crucial for key sectors such as energy, transport and forestry. Cross-border cooperation here has much yet to offer and I would like to highlight innovation as a crucial objective for the dynamic economies of the High North in general.

Also in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice, we are all facing big challenges such as trafficking in human beings and organized crime. In these areas we have a good basis to build on; our existing cooperation across borders is already providing good results.

Health issues such as fighting particularly HIV and tuberculosis as well as educating people about the health and social dangers related to excessive alcohol consumption are very important.

The same goes for the protection of Indigenous peoples. In fact the Saami people are real Europeans, living across the borders of several countries of the continent - Sweden, Finland, Russia and Norway.

But perhaps the most important sector –and by far the most challenging – is the Environment:

Those of us who grew up around the Baltic Sea have seen for ourselves the deterioration of water quality over the years. And the neighbouring Arctic region has long been suffering the impact of climate change.

We are at long last seeing some of the positive effects of recent action. During a recent trip to Östersund in the north of Sweden I was told by locals that, thanks to reduced air pollution and acid rain, the snow this year is white again for the first time in many years.

Indeed, one of the Northern Dimension’s major achievements has been setting up the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, managed by the EBRD. This provides seed money for large infrastructure projects in North West Russia, such as a new waste water treatment plant in St Petersburg.

But there is still a great deal of work to do.

We are particularly concerned by the state of the Baltic Sea - improperly treated industrial, agricultural and urban wastewater flows have had an enormous impact on the region. We are therefore strongly committed to regional efforts to restore the Baltic Sea to good ecological health.

As some of you will be aware, the Commission adopted in 2005 a Thematic Strategy on the Marine Environment. With this Strategy the European Union is putting in place a policy framework which specifically addresses the vital issue of protecting Europe’s seas and oceans in an integrated manner, looking at all pressures and impacts.

The Commission is determined to continue to play its part in the region to deliver on our common objectives – and in particular to climate change impacts.

As recently highlighted in the much publicised report of the International Panel on Climate Change, on average, climate warming of the Arctic region is two or three times more marked than elsewhere on the planet, with a 3° C increase over the past 50 years. Without entering into technical details, I think it is worth keeping in mind that Arctic pack ice has already shrunk by 15 to 20 % over the past 30 years.

If this is not urgently addressed, there will be disastrous consequences for arctic ecosystems as well as for already fragile indigenous communities. Most importantly, through sea-level rise and increased temperatures, arctic changes will impact the planet as a whole. Safeguarding the Arctic's marine environment and climate is therefore not only essential for its own sake. It is also an absolute priority if we are to avert climate change at global level.

The Stern report on the costs of climate change has very clearly indicated that we will pay dearly if we do not act now to avert and adapt to inevitable climate change now. Clearly, therefore, the priority cannot be to revive the old myth of the Northern Passage. Not only would this be incompatible with the objectives our climate policy but it would also be seeing only the tip of the iceberg!

It is our common duty to make the case for stricter protection of the Arctic before it is too late. We are therefore committed to stepping up our efforts to further protect the Arctic with all partners in the region.

That brings me to my third and last point on the value of common ownership and a balanced geographical approach. What makes the new Northern Dimension so special is its common ownership by the EU, Iceland, Norway and Russia. We could not hope to make any serious contribution without the support of all four, and I am delighted that we have come together in this way.

It is also a means of avoiding duplication, competition and neglect of important issues. Common ownership means also a commitment by all partners including Russia to keep the Northern Dimension as the permanent forum to discuss Northern challenges and subsequently adequate Northern policies. Relevant projects may come as a logical outcome of this permanent dialogue. In this context we specially welcome the now established principle of co-financing.

I would also like to stress the importance of the partnership between the Regional Councils in the North and the International Financing Institutions in implementing the Northern Dimension.

That balance is also reflected in the approach to the different sub-regions. The Northern Dimension partners have ensured all geographical areas of the broader region are included - whether it be the Baltic Sea Region as a whole, Kaliningrad oblast, the Barents Sea or the vast Arctic and Sub-Arctic areas.

It’s in the spirit of ensuring a balanced and comprehensive approach that we have invited Canada and the USA to remain as observers in the new Northern Dimension. That way all the relevant partners are gathered around the same table and we can make sensible decisions on the part of the region we all share. We hope that the International Polar Year in 2007-2008 will reinforce our links; particularly on issues such as indigenous peoples’ heritage and climate change.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Northern Dimension is now as much a policy of the EU, as it is of Russia, Norway and Iceland. Common ownership is the key to this new phase in the Northern Dimension and this means that our citizens expect from all of us our engagement and commitment to its success.

Thank you for your attention.

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