Once being the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs of Iceland as well as participating in the first official meetings between the Icelandic and Baltic governments, Halldór Ásgrímsson is now the Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers. In an interview to the Latvian daily "Latvijas Avīze" he talked about the development and future prospects of the Nordic relations with the Baltic States. – How would you describe cooperation with the Baltic States so far? Since the beginning of the 1990s the Nordic Council of Ministers has had its offices here whereas now some talk about their closure. Is it true?– The Nordic Council of Ministers has no plans of closing its offices in the Baltic countries. Nordic parliamentarians have discussed such a possibility during the [Nordic Council] Session, but later one of the presidium members reassured me that the statement has been misunderstood. The main topic here is the need to revise and evaluate the cooperation as such. So we have started working on the new guidelines for cooperation, which will be devised together with the Baltic States. We have stated that we need a mechanism in order to continue the successful cooperation which was initiated in the 90s. Up to now this role has been played by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ offices in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Of course, the cooperation has changed and today it is different from what we had in the early 90s. Quite possibly, changes will happen some time in the future, but for the time being the offices are still needed. By shutting them down we would lose essential contacts and our connection with the Baltic realities.
– From the Nordic perspective – what was the primary goal for opening the Nordic Council of Ministers’ offices in the Baltic countries at the beginning of the 90s?
– We wanted to establish relationship with the people of these countries and with national institutions. The Soviet times brought the destruction of many spheres of life, many of the pillars of society, so there was a need for democratic institutions. Our mission was to help restore Latvian society and, of course, to develop friendship with the Baltic States. I think we have done a very good job, which could serve as a basis for our future relations as well. Nowadays we have to take into account new challenges and present circumstances.
The offices are redundant if they do not develop projects for closer cooperation. Nowadays Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are perceived by the Nordic countries as equal partners. We can already see good cooperation in education and culture, which in the long term will extend into other fields as well. During the next year we will be discussing new possibilities for cooperation and its possible models. Then we will decide on the ways how to proceed after 2013. The offices are great platforms for fostering cooperation. For example, the office in Vilnius is our backbone for cooperation with the people in Belarus. This network of offices is highly necessary.
– Why is closer cooperation with Belarus so important for the Nordic countries?
– I am convinced that in future we will have close relations with Belarus. But it is difficult to develop any kind of cooperation with its current regime. At the same time we are doing an important job in Belarus – we have taken on partial responsibility for the European Humanities University, which was closed down in Belarus and is now operating in exile in Vilnius. Also on behalf of the European Union we are trying to sustain relations in various fields, for example, with the civic society, and we will continue devising grant programs for Belarusian students. Of course, it is unbelievable that this university in Minsk was shut down only because it wanted to operate in accordance with European education standards. I hope that one day the European Humanities University will be reopened in Minsk.
– Currently Belarus is inaccessible to Nordic cooperation. Where do you see possibilities for your activities in this country?
– That’s true, Belarus is currently unavailable for us. However, there is a Swedish embassy in Minsk which helps us sustain relations with Belarus. For the time being it is not necessary to establish our office there because we can conduct our activities from Vilnius. I do not rule out the possibility of closer cooperation with other embassies in Minsk as well.
– Has the Belarusian side manifested its interest in cooperation with the Nordic countries?
– Not as far as its government is concerned. But the civic society has reportedly expressed great interest in cooperating with us, which is similar to what happened in the Baltic countries prior to the restoration of their independence. At that time I was working for the Nordic Council and visited the Baltic States. It was an unforgettable experience. I think the work we started then was important not only for the Baltic States but also for the Nordic countries. It most certainly brought us together. So we have to cherish this cooperation, even nowadays.
– Speaking of the Nordic cooperation model, several Nordic politicians have called for its reformation so that the Nordic cooperation would gain more of "political weight". What does it really mean?
– It does not mean establishing some kind of independent political body. We are trying to find ways for a cooperation model which would make use of the unique competences of each Nordic country for a common Nordic good.
Thus Nordic cooperation can become a platform for international cooperation. At the same time Nordic-Baltic cooperation can be a platform for speaking with one voice on international matters.
– In which fields can this cooperation become closer yet? Security, economy, social affairs?
– Security and foreign affairs are not included in the Nordic Council of Ministers’ agenda. Of course, we are working on various aspects with regard to foreign policy, for example, cooperation within the Baltic Sea Region, within the Arctic Region and the European Union. However, the priority spheres are climate, energy and environment. Now we will put great emphasis on "green" growth, "green" economy and the welfare state. The Nordic welfare model is known all over the world but we cannot take it for granted. We still have to take care of it and preserve it. Of course, first and foremost it is the country itself which is responsible for its welfare but we can seek cooperation possibilities there as well.
–"Green growth" – what does it mean?
– Good question... We want to take care of the sustainability of the environment, energy, forests, sea. Sustainability is the main issue here. We cannot rely on oil and coal alone, we have to look for alternative energy resources. It means we have to focus on how to preserve the sustainability of the environment. Of course, it will take time and it is a big challenge with a number of important issues to be solved – for instance, the problems of both land and sea transport.
– Last year the Swedish political and business analyst Gunnar Wetterberg published a rather controversial proposal for a new Nordic Union, which would be something similar to the EU. It seems that in the Nordic countries this idea was not taken very seriously.
– It provoked a great discussion but I don’t think the idea is realistic. Nordic countries are very different in terms of economy, social affairs and other aspects. But it promoted a discussion about what we can do together and how we can get rid of the obstacles precluding a closer cooperation. We are trying very hard to eliminate these obstacles. This suggestion generated a good discussion, however, a Nordic federation remains totally unrealistic.
Latvijas Avīze, 2011.11.11. by Jānis Krēķis