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EU Baltic Sea Strategy, Annual Forum, 20.10.2020

Opening remarks by President Tarja Halonen


Dear friends, the Baltic Sea is one of our common nominators, for us, the people living around the sea. For hundreds of years it has fed us with its sea fruits. It has been the road for the exchange of goods and culture. It has been the source of prosperity, joy and happiness. And, it has also been the stage of many wars.

However, for the past 70 years, we have enjoyed peace and increased prosperity in our region. We have slowly built stability to our region through trade and cooperation. To continue this trend, we need to work to further to find new ways of working together.

Our sea has been very useful for us, providing us with food, transportation and recreation. We should be reciprocal and return the favors we have received. We all know that the nature of the Baltic Sea is very special: It is a shallow sea with brackish water depending on the pulses of salty water from the Atlantic. The sea is fragile, and, if something serious happens, such as an oil accident, it takes a long, long time before the sea recovers.

So far, we have not have seen large environmental accidents in the Baltic Sea, thanks to the precautionary actions. However, the state of our sea is not good. Already from the 60’s it has been clear that the ecological state of the Baltic Sea has been declining rapidly. After the research done on our sea, we have been able to see the growing problems and to identify their causes. Now, it is sometimes said that the Baltic Sea is the most studied and the most polluted sea in the world. And now, we need different players to come and act together for our common good.

Luckily, however, we have a good record of cooperation. We have the world oldest intergovernmental science organization the “International Council for the Exploration of the Sea” which has mapped the sea for us for almost 120 years. We have the Helsinki Commission, which has focused on protecting our sea for more than 40 years. On top of these, since the 90s we have seen many other networks and organizations to emerge: EU-members, Nordic countries, coastal cities, universities, companies, NGOs, and even individual people have joined their efforts to work together.

The agreements have given us clear targets, and we have seen the agreements to take a root. After Rio 92, the Baltic Sea was one the first regions where the ecosystems management approach was taken up, as it was intended in the Rio 92 declaration, the so-called Agenda 21. This was thanks to the work done by the Helsinki commission and the history of cooperation we have. Now, the main challenge is the full implementation of agreements.

The implementation can be done at different levels. In our Baltic Sea region, international co-operation is often needed because different coastal states depend on one another

Renovation of the old waste water system of St. Petersburg was a good example of that. The systems were very old. But city itself was not able to do the renovation. Both the national and international co-operation was needed. The private sector was involved too. And, we helped to get the support from the EU and European Banks for the new waste water system.

This is one of the examples of coordinating the work of the local, regional, national and international actors, and getting financing from various sources, – public and private. It was not easy, but it could be done.

Now, after waste water treatment systems have been upgraded, there are other factors that put pressure on the Baltic Sea. The food production is important for our region and its 90 million people. But, the pressure our food production systems put on the environment give us a large challenge.

Dear friends, at times we need to step up to the global level in order to make reforms in our region. I remember when the marine traffic in the Baltic Sea was increasing and, with it, the risk of accidents. Also, many ships were emptying their waste directly to the sea. We wanted to stop it.

We needed global agreement. The idea was to get the status of “particularly sensitive sea area”, or “PSSA”, for the Baltic Sea. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) recognizes these areas as those where special care and standards are implemented for the shipping industry. We succeeded to get the PSSA status to the Baltic. But, not everybody liked it. Even few Finnish enterprises did not like it. We were trying different forums and, this time, the global and UN-based forum was the right one.

Many of you know this as well as I do, or better than me.  My main idea is to remind all of us how broad variety of possibilities we have. My message is that we have to find the right partners and forums for our actions. During my presidency, in 2010, together with Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and the Baltic Sea Action Group we organized a summit for representatives of the coastal states, businesses, universities, and NGOs. We had about 500 people in the summit, all the way from Mr. Vladimir Putin and King Carl XVI Gustaf  to  Ilkka Herlin and Juha Nurminen , Liisa Rohweder to business and NGO leaders and activists.  We all together managed to make 140 commitments for protecting the Baltic Sea. This was a great push forward.

So, what is a lesson: we should keep our minds open. Sometimes the right forum might be an informal one, such as an international music festival where new ideas and inspiration can be found. The key is to find right level and right forum. And, I am very sure that you find the right ways.

Before ending, I want to say that you have done a lot of work for the Baltic Sea region, and plenty of achievements have followed. The work of HELCOM, and those who have stepped in ever since, such as Östersjöfonden, John Nurminen Foundation, Baltic Sea Action Group, and other organizations and cities have all done tremendous work in this field, and continue to do so.

Today, my dear friends, we are at the point where we see cooperation at different levels: local, national and international. And, this meeting demonstrates this very well: We are here to develop and share our ideas how to work together in making our region more sustainable and prosperous. Today and in future, I’m hoping to hear your ideas and plans for our region, and, I look forward to work together with you. I wish you all very inspiring discussions and good luck and persistence to your work. Thank you.