From autumn 2013 to autumn 2015 Finland was the chair country of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. A key person during this time was the Barents Ambassador of Finland, Ms. Marja-Leena Vuorenpää. In our interview she tells about the chairmanship period to the readers of BarentSaga.
The principles of the Finnish chairmanship were coherence, cooperation and continuity. How well did you succeed in fulfilling these goals?
“In my opinion fairly well. For example in continuity, we have continued many projects from the previous chairmanships, such as the climate change work and the traffic planning. Of course the two-year chairmanship period is long enough to develop and implement new projects as well. In general, I think the continuity of the Barents cooperation works really well and I believe many of the topics we have dealt with in our chairmanship period will continue during the Russian chairmanship too.
In the field of cooperation we have succeeded in deepening the bonds among the Barents working groups. A good example of this was the Youth Forum in Rovaniemi in 2014, when the participants included also people from the social affairs sector. But this is a field where the work must be continued, as there are various sectors where the cooperation opportunities are yet to be realized, such as the area between tourism, environment and culture.
As for coherence, it is maybe the theme that has caused most talk. Often people ask why there are so many different cooperation fora in the northern regions. We have asked the working groups to take a look to all the fora and think how they complement each other and what forms of cooperation could be possible between them. Another thing we have encouraged the working groups to do is to invite representatives from their interest groups to the meetings to enhance synergy and change of information. A good example of this is the Working Group on Social Affairs and Health, where they have had a long and good cooperation between them and the Northern Dimension. And in the Working Group on Environment they have good connections to various international fora. In the environmental sector it also helps that the International Barents Secretariat has an employee working on these themes.”
Speaking of Working Groups, which sectors and Working Groups have been most visible during the Finnish Chairmanship?
“The transport sector, which, as mentioned, was an important topic already during Norway’s chairmanship 2011-13, has still been active. The work on Barents transport plan was started under Norway’s chairmanship, and during our period we have continued this work with a study on Barents Cross-Border Road Corridors. It covers twelve important road connections between the countries that are in the need of repair and investments. Also in the transport sector, the Kolarctic-funded Barents Freeway project that took place on the regional level was completed last year. But the work on developing the transport in the Barents region still needs to be continued.
Also the environmental sector has progressed much. Much effort has been put into regional climate strategies, and the work with Barents environmental Hot Spots has continued successfully. Some Hot Spots have been removed from the list.
An extremely important breakthrough was achieved in the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples. Its activities have for long suffered of financial problems, and in the Kirkenes summit 2013 it was even feared that the operation of the working group would have to cease due to lack of funding. Finland has been active to ensure the resources for the working group will be guaranteed, and now all the member countries have pledged to support the working group with a small amount of money. This way the working group should be able to operate on regular basis and its members can better participate in different events and meetings and follow the work of the different sectors more actively.“
Is there any single event that somehow characterizes this two-year period or is more memorable than the others?
“I think it is very difficult to single out one separate event, as there is cooperation in so many different fields. One of the largest operations was of course the Barents Rescue exercise, which always ties up a big amount of different actors and requires a lot of coordination. And of course the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Oulu was very significant too.”
How do you feel now when the chairmanship is at the end?
“Of course it feels good now when the baton has been passed. The autumn has been very busy time, not only the ministerial meeting with all its details, but also the parliamentary meeting in Helsinki, the formulation of the joint communiqué and all the regular meeting activities.
I think as a whole the Barents cooperation has taken steps forward, and the cooperation has been done in positive spirit. The tensions in international politics in general have not reflected in the Barents cooperation. And it is important that the cooperation will continue in the future as well.”
Interview by Ilkka Tiensuu