A folder full of crazy ideas? Former Danish defense minister Soren Gade. Photo: Reuters/Scanpix
“There are many activities within NB8 cooperation. There are meetings of ministers, conferences for academics, exchange of students, etc. However, the information concerning these activities seems hard to find,” said a report into the state of the NB8 compiled by former Latvian prime minister Valdis Birklavs and former Danish defense minister Soren Gade. “Ordinary citizens do not seem to have sufficient knowledge of NB8 cooperation.”
The NB8 report gives 38 fairly vague “recommendations” of ways the Nordics and Baltics might like to buddy up, most of which have been aired before, such as “NB8-scholarships should be offered,” “a regional conference should be held,” and “All countries should be encouraged to contribute to the EU Nordic Battle Group.”
But does the region really need another voice, and if so, is NB8 it? The no-show of Sweden's Minister of Foreign Affairs and former prime minister Carl Bildt in Riga suggests maybe not.
Marx (Groucho, not Karl) famously quipped that he didn't care to join any club that accepted people like himself as a member. Estonia seems to take a different line, being ready, willing and eager to stump up membership fees to pretty much any organization that's taking applications - just look at its almost pathological determination to make it into the Eurozone even while some existing members were mulling whether they should have joined in the first place.
When Estonia's membership certificate arrives in the post on January 1, 2011, it will no doubt be hung on the wall alongside the country's other two membership triumphs: the European Union and NATO.
But if those three gilded frames hang above the fireplace, then other rooms are adorned with frames of gradually diminishing value, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the dining room (Estonia joined in May this year), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the kitchen, and the Council of Baltic Sea States in the WC.
As the Economist wrote in 2008: “On any list of international organisations deserving the chop, the Council of Baltic Sea States should have a high ranking.”
There isn't even wall space for the Baltic Development Forum, the Baltic Assembly, the Baltic Council of Ministers... and that's before you get down to the nitty-gritty of the International Humanitarian Partnership and HELCOM with its Baltic Sea Strategy.
Most are talking shops without real power and limit themselves to issuing friendly declarations of good intentions plus the inevitable call for “closer cooperation.” There is probably nothing wrong with that other than the danger that endless discussion takes the place of actual action. It begs the question whether they serve any real purpose other than operating a nice line in guided tours and gala dinners?
In what looks dangerously close to sophistry, the NB8 report actually mulled whether or not there are too many overlapping organizations in the region. Its answer was a classic fudge: “There is no need for new regional structures; indeed, there are voices even advocating the dissolution of many of the existing ones which some find to be redundant or inefficient. However, if a relevant and active Nordic-Baltic agenda is set, the number and quality of the structures would become an issue of secondary importance. Moreover, all these structures can be put to good use if genuinely common and mutually important objectives and agendas are found.” In short, all these bodies are needed, provided we can find things for them to do.
At the launch of an earlier cooperation report in June, this time into Estonian-Latvian relations, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said he was disappointed it contained no “crazy, stupid ideas” because they are the ones that create real discussion and sometimes lead to unexpected results.
Asked by ERR News whether the recommendations included anything crazy or even just unorthodox, Soren Gade admitted, “We didn't go for the wild ones,” preferring to talk about “added value” for the region.
But according to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, there are proposals that will provide a practical test of how unified the Nordic-Baltic stance really is.
“I proposed a year ago - and now it is there on paper - cooperation in the United Nations which means the NB8 should not be competitors for seats on the security council or human rights council, to coordinate voting and candidacies. Before a Nordic or Baltic country puts forward its candidates we should speak and coordinate,” Paet told ERR News.
According to Paet, similar “NB6” informal meetings (the NB8 minus Norway and Iceland) before EU foreign ministers' meetings have been effective, but it was notable that his own idea of the way forward for Nordic-Baltic cooperation was not among the 38 recommendations.
“There is the council of ministers of the Nordic countries. If we really speak about strong links around the Baltic Sea, why not enlarge this body so it will be along the same NB8 format?” Paet asked.
Perhaps the last word should go to Marx, who clearly understood the potential usefulness of clubs as well as their problematic nature. “I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it,” he said.