Visby, Sweden; May 3 (RFE/RL) - A two-day, eleven-state Baltic summit is underway in Visby, on the Swedish island of Gotland.
Heads of governments from all nine countries bordering the Baltic Sea, as well as Norway and Iceland, have gathered about fifty miles off mainland Scandinavia to define a common Baltic strategy to issues such as NATO and European Union (EU) enlargement eastwards. Political, economic and cultural cooperation, both on a regional and on an EU level, also feature on the agenda.
In preliminary remarks, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl said the Baltic region will be a major player within the EU, once Poland and the three Baltic states, have become members of the union. Fostering closer ties between the Baltic East and West is thus a major issue not only on a regional but also on a pan-European level.
European Commission President Jacques Santer as well as Italy's Prime Minister are also participating. Italy currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Integrating former Communist countries in both the Scandinavian and Western European structures is a cornerstone of Baltic policy, Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said before the summit. Stability, democracy and healthy economic growth as well as full employment and a fair distribution of income are obvious ways to achieve these aims, Stockholm says.
NATO enlargement to encompass former Warsaw-pact countries will be discussed in bi-lateral and multi-lateral meetings between Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and western counterparts. Although no change of tone in Russia's opposition is anticipated, observers note the Baltic summit is yet another high-level chance to persuade Moscow that NATO does not aim to threaten it by accepting as members its former allies.
The brainchild of Sweden's former Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, the two-day summit is the first of its kind after the establishment of the Council of Baltic states several years after the end of the Cold War.
The Baltic region is perhaps a classic example of regionalism turned international. A divide between East and Wrest during the Cold War, the region has now become a paragon of cooperation, stability and free trade between former foes. But, contrary to an outsider's view, it is also a motley of alliances and would-be alliances, both west and east of the Swinousice - Helsinki line.
Germany and Denmark have for many years been members of both the EU and NATO. But their position on issues such as further European integration, the European Monetary Union and others differ widely.
Sweden and Finland are relatively new members of the club and have decided to remain neutral in terms of security arrangements. Yet, Stockholm and Helsinki have made a commitment to the Western European Union, the fledging defence arm of the EU. Denmark, on the other hand, would remain just an observer in the new arrangement as Copenhagen thinks no security organisation in post Cold War Europe can be viable without the participation of the United States.
Norway, a founding member of NATO, opted out of the EU. Yet, it is a member of the European Free Trade Organisation (EFTA).
Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland have among them the Nordic Council which largely has eliminated national borders.
Yet, none of them subscribes to the Schengen agreement of which Germany is a founding member. In reality, Schengen now overrides the older EU travel arrangements, and travellers between Scandinavia and Germany are asked to produce their passports at the border.
None of these outstanding issues in the West is likely to cause any trouble in the future. But trouble comes from the East. Mafia-type gangs from Poland and the former Soviet Union have sprouted in all Scandinavian countries as their main businesses are car-theft, prostitution and drugs.
The Baltic states have also become a route for illegal immigration for third-world migrants into the affluent North.
While Poland is a prime candidate for both NATO and EU membership, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania face growing Russian opposition to NATO participation. It is as yet unclear how this opposition may be minimised. Yet, the Baltic states have concluded association agreements with the EU. Moscow has also made a broad agreement for cooperation with Brussels.
The Visby Baltic summit focuses on all these issues in addition to purely regional matters such as Baltic Sea pollution and promoting regional culture.
While emphasising its informality and its aspiration to create a dialogue among equals, observers note, the summit just cannot do that while economic discrepancies continue. It is hard to imagine how broad economic solutions can be effected when, on one hand, Denmark and Germany have a per capita GNP of about $30,000 a year, while each Lithuanian makes just over $1,300.
The Baltic summits ends tomorrow with the approval of a common declaration.