Over the course of history, Germany’s relationship with the Baltic Sea region has oscillated between support and collaboration on one hand, and hesitancy and reluctance on the other. While Nordic states have long recognized the need for transnational cooperation with Baltic States and islands on common interests such as economics, energy, transport and defense, Germany’s policies towards this region have lagged behind for various reasons – reasons that are best understood in historic, geographical and political terms. Given the growing strategic importance of the Baltic Sea Region for Germany, it has become more crucial than ever for Germany to more fully engage the region through public diplomacy initiatives, with Baltic islands emerging as a prime target audience.
The unification of Germany in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1990 gave rise to an emerging major European power, politically and economically. In his paper on ‘German policy toward Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1991 as an element of the Baltic Sea region-building,’ Kamil Markiewicz explains how the shift in geographical location of Germany, i.e. the creation of another German coastal region Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, raised the unified state’s attention to cooperation with other littoral states in the areas of energy, ecology and security.
Despite this, a security and economic logic driven Eastern policy (Ostpolitik) appears to have prolonged the presence of the ‘Moscow factor’, prevalent in German policies towards the Baltic Sea region during the Second World War. In his chapter on ‘Germany’s Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region,’ Axel Krohn, a security policy expert and former Senior Advisor to the Council of the Baltic Sea States, incorporates the Russo-German relationship as one of the six factors that amount to German non-policy in the Baltic Sea region. Germany’s preoccupation with NATO enlargement and the extension of the EU is described as another factor that hindered Baltic Sea cooperation so as not to aggravate relations with Russia. Although the current German chancellor, Angela Merkel, does not seek out close personal ties with Russia’s political leaders, she has continued to pursue this Ostpolitik.
To this end, regional cooperation seems to be undermined by concepts of national self-interest and power politics. An argument could be made, however, that it is actually in Germany’s best self-interest to further its integration in the Baltic Sea region through public diplomacy initiatives aimed at island communities. Primarily, this could help Germany diversify its energy resources, focus on alternative energy projects on Baltic islands, and become less dependent on Russian oil imports. Recognized by the European Union (EU) in its Energy Security Strategy, “prosperity and security hinges on a stable and abundant supply of energy” (European Energy Security Strategy, 28 May 2014) –a sentiment that holds particularly true for Germany, which along with Italy, constitutes the largest recipients of Russia’s gas exports.
Partly due to an awareness of this dependence and partly due to the aim of protecting the climate and environment, the German government has proposed “aggressively expanding its renewable energy use with the purpose of making green energy 60% of the country’s final energy consumption by 2050” (Carrera, 26 September 2013). The passing of the Renewable Energy Sources Act 2012 (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz – EEG) further serves to encourage the development of sustainable energy, the protection of the environment and the decrease of energy supply costs.
In admitting the need to reduce energy dependence, Germany cannot ignore the ever increasing importance of the Baltic Sea region in energy security and diplomacy. Russia’s oil and gas projects of the new millennium, which aim to bypass Ukraine and Belarus, have pushed the significance of the Baltic Sea region, as a link between export and import countries, to the forefront: the 1,224 kilometers-long Nord Stream pipeline links Russia’s Baltic Sea coast near Vyborg with Germany’s Baltic Sea coast of Lubmin, near Greifswald serves as one such example. These projects present opportunities for the Baltic Sea regions to shed the passive role taken on in the past and to exert their influence, as Russia will have to engage with the Baltic Sea region on issues, such as environment protection, in order to keep export revenues flowing into Moscow.
Arguably, German energy security has already shifted its focus on the Baltic Sea region, using public diplomacy and an array of networks, which provide a platform for multilateral activities between Baltic Sea States and other subnational actors within a cooperative security framework. Intergovernmental forums, such as The Council Of The Baltic Sea States Secretariat’ (CBSS), which promotes regional intergovernmental cooperation, and the Baltic Sea States Subregional Co-operation (BSSSC), which brings together regional authorities below the national level, provide a platform for transnational cooperation and a voice for subnational groups on issues of energy security and defense.
While cooperation of this sort is commendable, more active engagement in the Baltic Sea region is needed by Germany if it wants to attain its ambitious goals on alternative energy sources and reduced energy dependence. Aligned to its own goals of successful alternative energy projects are those of the Baltic islands. Cooperation on these would encourage more regional integration and unity, which in turn would protect energy security for all the parties involved.
The Swedish island Gotland, the largest Baltic Sea island, provides a good example. Like Germany, it has set itself ambitious targets, aiming to have a fully climate-neutral (100% renewable energy balance), efficient and economic energy supply by 2025, which also contributes to sustainable growth and the development of local business (Vision 2025, adopted by the Regional Council). The island relies on reaching its goals through the renewable energy sources potential that wind, biomass, and solar energy provide (European Islands Network on Energy & Environment: Gotland, Sweden, 2009).
Outlined in the ‘Sustainable Energy Action plan for Gotland’, the mentioned targets are to be implemented through an action plan that is coordinated by the Regional board. This board supports the local advisory board, which consists of representatives from the regional administration, the county administration, university and regional energy stakeholders –a case in point for subnational cooperation, but also multilevel governance since the action plan has been developed within the framework of the EU project Isle Pact.
Gotland’s Municipality is also a signatory to a partnership declaration with the European Commission, which incorporates it as one of the 100 Renewable Energy Communities, outlined in the Campaign for Take-off (ManagEnergy, European Commission, 8 March 2016). The partnership declaration outlines Gotland’s objective “to have a 100% renewable energy balance by 2025 and to work towards the realization of a sustainable society”. Since Germany has aspirations to increase its share of renewable energy, which fall under the EU’s 2020 Energy Strategy, the supranational platform seems to provide mutually beneficial opportunities for cooperation between Germany and islands like Gotland.
While the Energy Action Plan for Gotland focuses on development of local businesses, foreign firms have seized the opportunity to collaborate on local energy projects. Smart Grid Gotland, prides itself as the ‘smartest electricity network in the world’ currently under development and led by the local energy company GEAB, together with Vattenfall, ABB, Energimyndigheten, Svenska Kraftnät, Schneider Electric and KTH. The project uses modern technology to integrate large quantities of renewable energy sources into the grid, while improving cost efficiency and preserving quality –a business model and philosophy that will certainly appeal to German businesses. German energy companies such as Enercon should seize the opportunity to collaborate on local projects, which will pave the way for regional cooperation and sharing of best practices on alternative energy sources.
This could further lead to academic collaboration. Germany’s focus on research and development as well as innovation within the area, means it would benefit from engaging with Gotland University, which specialises in ecologically sustainable development, and the role which energy consumption holds in it, offering courses on wind power-related subjects. This includes studies on the development of wind power from a social science perspective, planned anchoring processes for offshore wind power as well as planning and acceptance for wind power.
Despite these evident benefits of focusing Germany’s energy security strategy on Baltic islands, traditional hesitancy in fostering bilateral relations with the Baltic Sea states puts into question the likelihood of more active future cooperation. While Germany has preferred addressing ‘soft security’ issues within the framework of multilateral structures, such as within CBSS, it has –despite participation –opposed far-reaching institutionalization of the CBSS due to its fear of regionalization within the region, which favors the ‘Nordic’ integration model. Rather than viewing this as a threat, Germany could take an example of Nordic countries’ engagement with Baltic islands, which equally benefit the parties involved.
Regardless of these past reluctances, current atmosphere in the international relations systems requires Germany to proactively engage Baltic islands in its energy security ambitions and projects on alternative energy sources. Incidents such as the Ukraine crisis and the Russo-Georgian war demonstrate the unpredictability of Russian behavior and risks of energy dependency on Russia and the consequent threat to energy security for importing states. Decreasing oil prices and its predicted impact on global stability further reaffirm the need for sustainable energy and security of energy supply. Moreover investment and regional cooperation in alternative forms of energy with an eye toward sustainability are critical in addressing climate related security concerns for all parties involved.
As the newly established focus on Baltic islands indicates, subnational actors play a more significant role in energy security and sustainability than they are credited for. If Germany is to fully appreciate this importance of the Baltic islands, the same logic should be applied to its own internal subnational actors. Northern regions of Germany have traditionally favored more cooperation with the Baltic states. The existing twinning arrangements and consequent relations between individual German towns and districts with those of the Baltic states should also be exploited for the purpose of cooperation on sustainable energy and energy security. Using transnational cooperation of subnational communities, Baltic islands should work together with perhaps, initially the German coastal regions along the Russian pipelines, which could then foment greater regional cooperation.
As states, regions and communities realize the scarcity of the natural resources available, sustainability will play an ever growing role not only in Baltic islands such as Gotland, but also for big economic powers like Germany. Regional cooperation at a subnational level is therefore essential to learn from each other and work together to achieve sustainable energy supply and safeguard energy security.
Author: Theebika Shanmugarasa is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center on Island Diplomacy. She is also a Community Engagement Specialist at the Baltic Islands Society.
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