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Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the opening of the 8th Annual Forum of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region

13.06.2017

President Ahtisaari,
Ms Mazur,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the eighth Annual Forum of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region here in the Federal Foreign Office!

President Martti Ahtisaari, it is a great honour and pleasure for us to welcome you here today. President Ahtisaari, you are an expert on international mediation. But not only that – you are also a great peacebuilder in Europe and much further afield.

You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for your global endeavours. But although you work all over the world, you have remained loyal to your native region, that is, the Baltic Sea region. You are also honorary chairman of the Baltic Sea Forum.

Through your work on behalf of the Baltic Sea region, Mr President, you demonstrate something that all of us must keep in mind, namely that cooperation between neighbours in a spirit of mutual trust does not come about by itself. It needs care and attention. And most importantly, it needs willingness on the part of policymakers to take on joint responsibility, especially in difficult times.

For example, in another region, the Arabian Peninsula, we are currently seeing just how quickly regional tensions can escalate. The diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries on the one side and Qatar on the other shows clearly that when trust is lost, a huge amount of energy and willingness is needed to bring the parties together again. I very much hope that all sides will show a desire to rebuild this trust. And of course, we Europeans know from our own painful experience how quickly one can end up in ever greater conflicts when talks no longer take place and, as historians have described it, when nations only think about their own interests and ultimately sleepwalk their way into a military conflict.

In contrast, when we look at the Baltic Sea region today, we see a positive picture. The region has certainly become a role model, particularly for regional cooperation in other parts of the world.

Eight EU Member States border the Baltic Sea, which is now also something like the EU’s inland sea, as by far the largest share of its coastline belongs to European countries. This region enables us to feel the EU’s peacebuilding capacity very clearly. Where once we had the Iron Curtain, which also divided the Baltic Sea, eight EU member states now work together as Baltic Sea countries. And with this forum here in Berlin, we are concluding the first cycle of eight annual forums that have become an integral part of cooperation in a spirit of mutual trust in the Baltic Sea region.

In this regard, we are able to build on a tradition of cooperation and extensive links in the Baltic Sea region. And this is not a recent development! The Baltic Sea has been a common cultural area for centuries. The Hanseatic League – to which my native city of Goslar belonged for 300 years, despite being a long way from the coast – created the foundations for common trade, but also for cultural and political exchange in the region.

However, there are also problems in the Baltic Sea region. We must not and cannot close our eyes to them.

We have witnessed a deterioration in the political climate around the Baltic Sea in recent years. I am referring to relations with Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine, which has flared up again in the last few days, we have had a difficult debate with our partner in Russia on restoring national integrity and in particular on ending the fighting.

Naturally, this also concerns our Baltic partners’ security, as the security of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is ultimately synonymous to the security of the Federal Republic of Germany and Europe.

Practical issues, with the potential to raise tensions, are also involved. For example, we want to improve aviation security over the Baltic Sea so that no incidents can occur.

In general, we need to do everything we can to make sure the mistrust that already exists does not seep to an even greater extent into the core of our cooperation. Instead, we should focus on exploring opportunities for cooperation in the Baltic Sea region, especially with the neighbours with whom our political relations are currently difficult.

That is why I would like to underline the importance of relations with neighbouring countries in the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. I am thinking in particular of Russia, as the Baltic Sea region enables us to demonstrate that close regional cooperation with Russia is possible and creates a positive outlook for the future.

For this reason, I explicitly support the endeavours to further relations with Russia and Belarus under the strategy.

I would particularly like to welcome the participants from Russia and Belarus here today.

Naturally, I also extend a warm welcome to the Norwegian representatives, with whom we work so closely and with such great trust on Baltic Sea issues, as on so many other dossiers. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

In my opinion, the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is an outstanding basis for furthering and shaping the cooperation so urgently needed in the Baltic Sea region.

I would thus like to underline two areas, which show both what good regional cooperation can achieve and where we need to do more together.

The first area concerns technologies of the future.

Many new and innovative firms come from the Baltic Sea region. Skype and Spotify are just two examples. Many of us probably see these names every day on our smartphones. Ericsson, a very large tech firm, also comes from the Baltic Sea region. I would like to welcome Sara Mazur, Vice President of Ericsson, to the Federal Foreign Office.

We need to continue feeding new technologies and media with innovative strength. And at the same time, we must ensure that we make use of the opportunities afforded to us by new technologies.

The trends are obvious. Moreover, they can no longer be reversed. Entire sectors are restructuring. What used to seem far away now feels closer to home. Rapid communication bridges distances and creates connectivity.

The Baltic Sea region can benefit in a special way from this development, as some regions in our countries used to be particularly far away from larger markets. The telecommunications revolution is helping to create a large market out of many smaller markets. The merchants of the Hanseatic League must have dreamed of this!

In general, our ongoing aim must be to enhance infrastructure in the region – not only the digital infrastructure of the future, but also traditional infrastructure, as the need for investments in this area remains high in our countries.

This means we need to invest intelligently. And to my mind, investing intelligently in a region like the Baltic Sea region in particular means investing in a coordinated way, looking beyond the confines of one’s own country to the rest of the region and making joint investments that benefit the region as a whole.

The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region does a great deal in this regard, for example in the field of grid expansion. Under the strategy, the Baltic energy markets’ links to the European energy market are being improved.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The second area concerns the Baltic Sea region’s lifeline, that is, the Baltic Sea itself.

I served as Environment Minister in Germany a few years ago and even then we talked about the need to improve regional marine conservation, especially in the Baltic Sea. While some progress has been made, the Baltic Sea’s ecological condition continues to be a cause of concern to us.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of nitrogen still flow from our rivers into the Baltic Sea, which has no fresh‑water access and can therefore only regenerate slowly.

Protecting fish stocks is another example. The fishing quota for cod had to be reduced by over 50 percent in 2016, simply because there was not enough of this type of fish available. And the European eel is critically endangered.

It is obvious that we cannot go on like this. Most of all, it is clear that we need to work together to protect this highly important habitat.

The EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region is a good instrument in this regard, as it enables us to take a coordinated approach.

By the way, I think it is right that the strategy does not only focus on the national level in all these endeavours. It includes those who are often much closer to events than the capitals, some of which are far away, that is, the regions in the Baltic Sea area – the parts of our countries that have close ties with the Baltic Sea.

I am aware that in Germany the northern states of Land Mecklenburg‑Western Pomerania, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Land Brandenburg and Land Schleswig‑Holstein are particularly active in implementing the strategy.

I think this is exactly the right way to make Europe stronger as a whole. In my opinion, we should not merely preach greater subsidiarity and less micro‑management within the European Union, but also take very practical steps in these areas. Wanting to make the EU better and giving municipalities and regions greater responsibility does not make you anti‑Europe. These things do not weaken Europe. They strengthen it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

During the two intensive days of your meeting here in Berlin, you will work hard on your individual areas of expertise, take part in discussions and hopefully come up with new ideas.

It is particularly important to us here in the Federal Foreign Office that you do not lose sight of what should be the overarching aim for us all, that is, to further strengthen the Baltic Sea region as a peaceful region. It already is a peaceful region today, and in the future it can serve as a good example for many other regions in the world.

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