«These are the drivers of the Barents Cooperation»
For the first time, Chairs of the Barents working groups assembled to jointly discuss development of regional cooperation.
Chairs of the Barents working groups with the representatives of the Russian and Kainuu Chairmanships and the International Barents Secretariat in Moscow on April 27 2017
By Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer
«It was an initiative taken by the Russian chair in cooperation with the International Barents Secretariat», says Tomas Hallberg. He is the Head of the International Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes, Norway, and plays a key coordinative role in cross-border regional cooperation. «The working groups are essential for the Barents Cooperation, it is in the working groups that the real work is done», Hallberg argues. «You can say that the Barents Cooperation stands and falls with the working groups.»
Of the total of 14 Barents working groups, eleven were represented in the meeting, the first of its kind ever. It took place in Moscow on April 27 under the auspices of the Russian MFA, the current chair of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council.
The working groups were established following the formation of the Barents Cooperation in 1993. They cover a wide range of issues from transport, tourism and economic cooperation to environment, health and indigenous peoples. They include experts from all the four Barents countries; Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
It is unlikely to be the last meeting of the kind. Hallberg believes Sweden, which takes over the chairmanship of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council from Russia in October this year, will follow up the initiative. «I believe in this, it is a useful measure to bolster the working groups. It helps create a collective feeling among the group leaders and it strengthens relations between the groups and the politicians on the regional and national level».
The meeting included also representatives of the Barents Regional Committee and the Committee of Senior Officials (CSO), as well as the International Barents Secretariat.
The strained relationship between Russia and its European neighbors clearly has affected cooperation also in the north. However, the Barents Cooperation bodies and groups have continued to work as before, seemingly unaffected by the political stalemate.
According to the International Barents Secretariat leader Hallberg, the Russian MFA fully shares the view that regional cooperation and so-called people-to-people initiatives should remain at the core of the Barents initiatives. The Russians also agree that Barents working group chairs should be invited to take part in the Barents Council meetings, Hallberg says.
The International Barents Secretariat has over the past years systematically engaged in measures aimed at vitalization of the regional cooperation. In 2015, it elaborated a report on the state of the working groups.
That document concludes that a big majority of the Barents working group members are highly motivated for cross-border cooperation, but that measures are needed to vitalize the cooperation structures.
Tomas Hallberg, Head of the International Barents Secretariat