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EU: 'Northern Dimension' Faces Test Of Institutional Resilience

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union's Northern Dimension -- a cross-border cooperation program involving the bloc's northern member states, northwestern Russia, and the Baltic candidate countries -- has in recent years lost some of its earlier momentum. The European Commission says the hiatus is temporary and about to be replaced by a new burst of activity. Observers warn, however, that how much attention the EU dedicates to the problems of northwestern Russia is largely a function of who dictates the bloc's agenda. RFE/RL reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union first became conscious of a "northern dimension" in the early 1990s after the three Baltic countries had regained independence, and Finland and Sweden joined the bloc in 1995.

Finland's brought with it a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, and together with Sweden argued for a regional EU policy along the lines of the existing Mediterranean programs.

Northern Dimension formally came into existence in 1998 as a framework program to coordinate and develop regional cooperation between EU member states, candidate countries, and northwestern Russia in fields like environment, nuclear safety, transport and communication infrastructure, business cooperation, and the cluster of issues around Kaliningrad.

The program figured prominently in the action plans developed by the EU's Finnish and Swedish presidencies in 1999 and 2001 respectively. Since then, however, it has largely disappeared from public view.

Marius Vahl, an analyst at the Brussels-based Centre for European Studies (CEPS), says Northern Dimension suffers from the same key weakness as other EU external regional programs -- its sponsors are limited to member states closest to the region in question.

Thus, the fortunes of the program wax and wane as the EU's current system of rotating six-monthly presidencies proceeds.

"When it comes to the Northern Dimension [it] has actually been very lucky with the sequencing of the [EU] presidencies. I don't think the Northern Dimension would have been as successful or as important -- all [that] in relative terms -- today if you had not had that sequencing. I mean, for example, if you had not had a Swedish presidency, quite obviously [not] much would have happened," Vahl said.

Vahl thinks the EU's impending enlargement has also taken its toll -- last year's Danish presidency, although potentially sympathetic to Northern Dimension, had its hands full with accession talks.

Diego de Ojeda, an external relations spokesman for the European Commission, says appearances can be deceptive, however. He says work with Northern Dimension component programs has continued apace and predicts major advances in the near future.

"Northern Dimension might not have enormous visibility but the fact is that activities continue, and some of them are quite important. For instance, one of the greatest things that is about to happen is the scheduled signing ceremony of the MNEPR -- the Multinational Nuclear [Environmental] Program for the Russian Federation which is to take place on the 21st of May in Stockholm," de Ojeda says.

De Ojeda says the agreement -- the fruit of a decade of often acrimonious talks -- will be a major breakthrough as it provides a legal framework for the clean-up of nuclear waste in northwestern Russia necessary for the involvement of foreign companies.

De Ojeda also says the European Commission is about to present a new Northern Dimension Action Plan for 2004-6, and expects the bloc's member states to endorse it before July.

Analyst Vahl points out that Northern Dimension has not introduced new money or initiatives into EU-Russia relations. Its main added value has been to improve coordination among existing EU aid programs and focus efforts.

"It managed to get attention to a certain number of problems and issues at an earlier stage than might have happened [otherwise]. I don't think the warning bells on Kaliningrad would have rung as early in the [European] Commission if it had not been for this initiative. Of course, inevitably [such issues] would have come up, and on Kaliningrad [the EU] hasn't really done that much in the context of the Northern Dimension, but at least in terms of finding practical solutions which a lot of people were hoping for in the late 1990s. But at least it has managed to put it up as an item on the agenda. I think without the Northern Dimension it would have happened later and with less force," he says.

Vahl says the focusing role of Northern Dimension might be blunted in future should the EU decide to do away with its system of rotating presidencies. Although Nordic presidencies may be few and far between, they do guarantee that Northern Dimension returns periodically to the top of the bloc's agenda. The EU's constitutional convention is currently debating whether the bloc should have a permanent president in future.

De Ojeda concedes that Nordic presidencies have had a "positive impact" on the Northern Dimension, but he says the backing of the European Commission is enough to keep EU interest in the program alive.

Taking a longer-term view, however, analyst Vahl predicts the significance of the Northern Dimension is likely to subside even if the EU's current system of presidencies should survive. He says enlargement and the bloc's rapidly developing and deepening relationship with Russia are already radically reshaping EU priorities.

"I don't think [Northern Dimension] is going to be that important in the future because the biggest problems [the EU and Russia] have are not, first of all, I think, in northern Europe. The challenges between the EU and Russia are much greater. There are all of these large-scale projects of which the Northern Dimension would be at most an element, rather than something grand alongside -- whether it is the [EU-Russia] energy dialogue, the foreign and security political dialogue, and eventual cooperation, or the Common European Economic Space -- the Northern Dimension is going to be a fairly moderate element of this," he says.

Vahl notes Northern Dimension is in essence a regional program and as such will always remain a reflection of the relative weight of the current Nordic and future Baltic member states within the EU.