If anyone of the delegates to the Baltic Sea meeting this week lost concentration for a second, the mosaic in the Golden Hall might have caught the attention. One of the pictures in this part of Stockholm City Hall recalls Swedish king Karl XII and his war with Russia. The king is standing on the bodies of seven dead people. Orthodox churches are burning behind him.
The Baltic Sea area has not always been as peaceful as today. And relations with Russia are still a key issue, hopefully in a more constructive way than during the reign of Karl XII.
At the meeting, governments discussed the Baltic Sea strategy, one of the key initiatives during the Swedish Presidency. Few ministers were present, with key countries such as Germany and Poland represented by State Secretaries.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt described the importance of the strategy in his initial address. But how concrete will the result be? There are already talking shows enough about regional co-operation.
The Commission proposal is surprisingly vague in areas such as the environment. Key areas such as the financial crisis or the euro entry of the Baltic countries are not covered. Co-operation on the internal market is one of the few issues where there seems to be significant movement forward. Yes, there has also been recent progress on linking electricity grids and limiting phosphates in detergents, but not because of the strategy.
EU governments have strong feelings against additional resources or new institutions. The role of the Commission in the follow-up is still unclear. As Rikard Bengtsson notes in a SIEPS-study, the original European Parliament resolution is stronger.
Rikard Bengtsson also emphasizes the lack of an external dimension, including Russia. I understand this to be one of the most sensitive issues in the Council negotiations. Germany is one of the countries concerned not to alienate Moscow.
After three meeting with the Friends of Presidency group, the strategy will be in COREPER next week. The Presidency plans for conclusions at the Foreign Ministers´ meeting 26 October without debate, and then endorsement by the European Council.
In parallel, Russia is playing its game over the summit with the EU, due to take place in Sweden this autumn. Fredrik Reinfeldt confirmed that there was still no response from Moscow when I asked him Friday morning. He talked about other ways to connect the Baltic Sea Strategy to Russia, mentioning the Council of Baltic Sea States. To me, the Northern Dimension seems a more logical way. But there is also a need for the higher political dialogue at a Summit (which of course also must deal with a number of other issues).
Two possible reasons have been mentioned for Russia withholding its response on the summit. One is the format. The Kremlin might want Dmitrij Medvedev to meet more EU Heads of government than the usual troika. The other reasons mentioned is the negative feelings Carl Bildt has evoked in the Kremlin after his strong (and correct) criticism of Russia´s war in Georgia.
Whatever the reason, the Baltic Sea area is of strategic importance both to the EU and to Russia. This calls for a stronger EU strategy and for a constructive EU-Russia Summit.