Article | Last updated: 12/04/2021
The Barents cooperation was established by the Kirkenes Declaration of 1993 and is a cornerstone of regional cooperation in the far north of Europe.
The Barents cooperation has provided a political framework for developing cooperation with Russia and has helped to normalise relations and build confidence across former dividing lines in the north after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A new Kirkenes Declaration was adopted in 2013, at a summit held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Barents cooperation.
The Barents region
The Barents region covers an area of 1.75 million square kilometres (about five times the size of mainland Norway) and has more than five million inhabitants, including a number of indigenous groups.
The Barents region is made up of 13 counties and other regional entities, which are represented on the Barents Regional Council:
- Nordland and Troms og Finnmark (Norway)
- Västerbotten and Norrbotten (Sweden)
- Kainuu, Lapland, North Karelia and Oulu (Finland)
- Arkhangelsk, Karelia, Komi, Murmansk and Nenets (Russia)
The Barents region is rich in natural resources, especially forest, minerals, oil, natural gas and fish. It also has a diversified business sector and a number of knowledge institutions. However, the long distances between communities and economic centres, sparse population and harsh climate pose challenges both for people living in the area and the authorities. People-to-people cooperation, which is already well-established in the region, is therefore very important. The Barents cooperation promotes dialogue about common challenges and opportunities in the region and ways to approach them.
The Barents cooperation takes place at two political levels: intergovernmental cooperation under the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and interregional cooperation under the Barents Regional Council. The combination of intergovernmental and interregional cooperation is what makes the Barents cooperation so effective.
Barents Euro-Arctic Council
The Barents Euro-Arctic Council (Beac) is the forum for intergovernmental cooperation on issues relating to the Barents region. The members are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the European Commission. Nine countries have been granted observer status. The chairmanship rotates every second year between Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. The Beac meets at foreign minister level at the end of each Beac chairmanship term and the chairmanship is then passed on to the next country in line.
Norway held the chairmanship for the first time in 2011–2013. The Norwegian chairmanship focused on three main priorities: sustainable economic and industrial development, knowledge-based environmentally sound and climate-friendly development, and the human dimension.
Norway is now chairing the Beac again, for the period 2019–2021. Norway has identified health, people-to-people contact and knowledge as the key priority areas for its chairmanship, with the overall aim of building a stronger and more resilient Barents region. The Norwegian chairmanship also attaches importance to promoting constructive cooperation between the counties in the north and the Sámediggi (Sami parliament).
Finland will take over the Beac chairmanship in October 2021.
Barents Regional Council
The Barents Regional Council (BRC) consists of representatives of the 13 regional entities that make up the Barents region as well as representatives of the three indigenous peoples of the region: the Sami, the Nenets and the Vepsian peoples. From 2017–2019, the BRC was chaired by the county of Finnmark, and the county of Västerbotten currently holds the chairmanship for the period 2019–2021. Nenets Autonomous Okrug will take over the chairmanship in 2021.
The International Barents Secretariat (IBS) in Kirkenes was established in 2008. It coordinates activities under the BEAC, the BRC and the working groups. The IBS maintains an online archive containing minutes of all the meetings of the BEAC and the BRC. The Norwegian Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes is organised as an inter-municipal company and is owned by Norway’s two northernmost counties. It administers funding for cross-border project cooperation with Russia, which is allocated annually by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Most of the practical work in the Barents cooperation is carried out in working groups, and supporting and encouraging these efforts is one of the chairmanship’s key tasks. There are intergovernmental working groups (under the BEAC), regional groups (under the BRC) and joint working groups, as well as a working group of indigenous peoples, which plays an advisory role to both councils.
The main task of the Barents cooperation is to strengthen and promote regional cooperation in a broad range of fields including the business sector, the environment, transport and communications, education and research, health, culture, indigenous peoples, search and rescue cooperation and youth issues.
The Kirkenes declaration
The 20th anniversary of the Barents cooperation was marked by the Barents Summit in Kirkenes on 3–4 June 2013. The participants included Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Vice President of the European Commission Siim Kallas. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal, members of the Barents Regional Council, representatives of the observer countries and the indigenous peoples, and youth representatives also took part.
A new Kirkenes declaration was adopted at the Barents Summit. The declaration describes some of the achievements of the first 20 years of the Barents cooperation and sets out new goals for the decades ahead. Cross-border cooperation in the Barents region is an example of the practical cooperation between Norway and Russia in the north on issues of national importance. Norway will, as far as possible, seek to maintain regional cooperation in the north, despite the change in the political situation as a result of Russia's violations of international law in Ukraine and its increasingly assertive stance in general.