Peter Stano, the European Commission’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, offered an insight into the prospects of Black Sea Synergy in relation to the challenges in front of regional cooperation, in the interview he gave to Geostrategic Pulse Magazine.
Geostrategic Pulse: Once Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, the expansion of the EU's maritime borders increased the strategic relevance of cooperation in the Black Sea area, a strategic region connecting Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Do you see a shift in paradigm when it comes to utilising the potential of the Black Sea Sinergy initiative, the main regional cooperation programme in the Black Sea Area?
Peter Stano: The EU reached the Black Sea shores with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, calling for a reinforced cooperation policy for the region. This is when the Black Sea Synergy was established as the EU's key regional policy framework for enhanced practical cooperation among Black Sea states to address common challenges for the benefit of the citizens and communities in the region.
Since then, Black Sea regional cooperation has further developed to maximise its potential. In 2019, thanks to intense work and enormous efforts of the region’s actors, with the EU guidance, all Black Sea bordering countries adopted two milestone agendas: The Common Maritime Agenda and the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda for the Black Sea. These propose goals for the next decade, regarding blue maritime growth and sustainable blue economy, research and innovation as well as protection of the marine and coastal ecosystems. The implementation of the agendas has already started for example with the establishment of a Virtual Knowledge Centre – a one-stop online platform on the blue economy helping stakeholders in the region to be better and more easily informed about the network and cooperation opportunities in the blue economy sectors.
The policy goals are underpinned by concrete actions. Since 2015, the EU has provided over €100 million from different instruments to support Black Sea cooperation in the following areas:
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has badly hit the Black Sea countries. The global pandemic requires global and regional solutions, and in this context, the cooperation under the Black Sea Synergy is more important than ever. The Black Sea region has encountered severe economic damage and decrease in incomes up to 60-90% in some sectors, and thus joint actions to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus in maritime transport, tourism, fisheries and aquaculture will be required. On the other hand, the pandemic has also opened up some opportunities. A sustainable and resilient recovery model with the green agenda and increased digitalisation at its core, gains particular importance not only for the Black Sea but also for the EU.
The Black Sea Synergy is fully in line with – and indeed supports – the European Green Deal and the EU’s Digital Agenda. In both cases, we see a huge importance in implementing these priorities together with our partner countries, and encouraging our partners to be equally ambitious. Only through close cooperation can we tackle global challenges such climate change and digital transformation.
In this respect, the European External Action Service, together with the European Commission are organising a high-level Green Diplomacy Virtual Event on 16 November on Advancing the Black Sea Synergy and the European Green Deal. This interactive event will bring together high-level panellists, academics, practitioners, journalists and the public to present and discuss the current environmental challenges and sustainable green development in the Black Sea region and the European Union’s role in responding to these challenges and opportunities. You and your readers are invited to connect and register here. All relevant information and documentation about the event and its goals are on the website.
How do the countries with direct access to the Black Sea relate today to the concept of regional cooperation?
You only need to look at the European Union itself to see the benefits of regional cooperation and effective multilateralism. It is the same in the Black Sea region. Challenges are better tackled, and opportunities better grasped, when working together. The role of multilateralism in the region is simple: to establish a level playing field between states regardless of their position in the international system, to set up stable norms and standards, applicable to all actors. The current pandemic again confirms the need for such an approach: the virus knows no borders.
Black Sea regional cooperation has been developed on a voluntary basis and at different levels of engagement, for example between local authorities, civil society, and government administrations. The countries share common objectives - the prosperity, resilience and stability of the region – as well as challenges - environmental challenges, need for better interconnectivity, climate change, even migration. The implementation of all initiatives and activities in the region cannot be achieved without the effective cooperation of all countries concerned.
As an example, let me mention the EU Black Sea Cross-Border Cooperation Programme, which has significantly supported the local economies and the development of communities along the Black Sea. Also with the EU support, regional actors further engaged in the Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea project, which resulted for example in the setup of an online Black Sea water quality database providing detailed information about the state of the sea. This work is essential, as the Black Sea remains one of the most polluted basins in the world due to human activities. Regional cooperation is critical to address this properly.
Moreover, civil society, through the EU supported Black Sea NGO Forum, remains an important stakeholder and continues to provide essential contributions to regional cooperation.
The Black Sea Synergy is primarily focused on thematic and pragmatic cooperation aimed at identifying common solutions for regional challenges and to seize regional opportunities. It is open to all countries of the region. The constructive engagement of all six riparian countries in creating the Common Maritime Agenda and the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda for the Black Sea are good examples of the positive collaboration, which contributes to confidence building. The active participation, in particular projects such as environmental monitoring or cross-border cooperation also has a positive impact on the well-being of communities across the Black Sea region.
The European Union encourages good neighbourly relations both for its Member States and for non-EU member states. We do not impose binary choices when it comes to cooperation. Therefore, if we can engage countries such as Russia and Turkey in specific projects and cooperation activities, that is clearly positive. At the same time, our engagement in the Black Sea is clearly based on respect for international law, including the principles of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, including freedom of navigation, as well as the EU non-recognition policy on the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. This was reaffirmed by EU Foreign Ministers back in June 2019.
Taking into account the complex geopolitical context of the Black Sea region, what are the main elements and intiatives that constitute the foundation of the Black Sea Sinergy initiative?
The structure of the Black Sea Synergy has been adapted to the changing needs over the years, currently concentrating on 10 sectoral and thematic fields of cooperation. These areas of cooperation are structured around three concentric circles:
Across all areas of cooperation, engagement with the civil society as well as with local communities, academic and business representatives in the Black Sea region is fundamental.
Furthermore, stronger links between the Black Sea Synergy and other EU initiatives, policies and strategies are key. This is in particular important with regard to the EU Strategy for the Danube Region due to the geographical and natural river-sea connection, and to joint actions in environment, transport and energy areas.
Due to its geographical location, as well as geopolitical considerations, the region has clear potential for interconnectivity, crucial for the prosperity and resilience of the region. For example, the Black Sea basin should play an enhanced bridging role connecting between major EU transport routes East-West (with the possibility to use the Danube River too), North-South (from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea) and further East with Central Asia. Connectivity, including maritime transport, is pivotal for deepening the EU’s cooperation with the three partners in the Black Sea with whom the EU has Association Agreements - Georgia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.
Finally, the EU maintains close ties with other regional and international organisations active in the Black Sea. The EU is a permanent observer of the Organisation for Black Sea Economic Cooperation, takes active role in the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, which contributes to achieving sustainability of fisheries and development of aquaculture, and actively cooperates with the Commission on the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution.
What can you tell us about the main obstacles that hinder cooperation in the Black Sea region, and what steps could be taken in order to maximize the potential of the Black Sea?
Clearly, the most important thing for regional cooperation to be successful is for the countries to engage. The EU can facilitate, can provide finance, expertise, platforms, but without the political will and effective cooperation of the countries involved, it cannot bring the desired results. Fortunately, we see a great will and desire for cooperation, stemming directly from the positive outcomes that such regional cooperation brings.
Another major obstacle concerns security-related aspects. We know that the region has witnessed, over the years, various geopolitical tensions, destabilisation efforts, even violations of International Law. The Black Sea Synergy, which is based on respect for international law, remains a framework for concrete and pragmatic cooperation, of creative thinking and developing of broad, deep and sustainable actions to address the transnational challenges of today and to use the potential of the Black Sea.
Finally, the current COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to the region. Looking for a sustainable and resilient recovery model is needed and regional cooperation activities with green agenda and increased digitalisation should be at its core.
To what extent do you see achievable the objective of establishing a common space of security and prosperity by strengthening regional cooperation?
As the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, has often said, the EU is multilateral by essence. Multilateralism is the only effective way to face threats with which no country can cope on its own and it is definitely the only path forward considering the current pandemic context.
Actions and projects that address the common needs and interests, use the untapped potential and propose concrete solutions for common regional challenges should be valued and nurtured. In our view, regional cooperation is an optimal way to achieve prosperity, stability and peace. This clearly applies to the Black Sea region.