European Affairs

Regional cooperation in this sphere is a new departure for the Nordic nations – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. While there is strong commonality culturally and historically among these countries, their international security ties are quite diverse, ranging from neutrality to NATO membership. So their collective efforts have focused mainly on economics. The main vehicle for cooperation among these five nations, the Nordic Council, was founded during World War II. As early as 1952, only a year after the creation of the EU’s forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community, the Nordic Council introduced its own “single market” in these five countries with regard to the free movement of their citizens and of labor across their common borders. But joint security arrangements have remained outside the Council’s scope because the member states have different relations with NATO and with the EU and its security and defense policy (ESDP). Denmark, the only Nordic country that belongs to both NATO and the EU, has opted out of the ESDP. Norway and Iceland are strongly committed to NATO: Norway has longstanding concerns about neighboring Russia, and Iceland, which used to host a major U.S. air base, still depends on NATO to patrol its airspace. But neither of these countries belongs to the EU.

Nowadays changes seem under way with regard to some of these “non-alignments.” Iceland, amid its current financial and economic woes, has signaled interest in joining the EU, possibly as early as 2011. EU members Finland and Sweden are neutrals who have remained outside NATO, but public opinion seems to be swinging toward more favorable views about joining the alliance, especially in Finland, with its long border with Russia.

Within the Nordic region itself, moves toward security cooperation have started taking shape against the background of these differing alliances. Last year six countries – Sweden and Finland (EU members), Norway (non-EU but NATO), Ireland (EU but not NATO) and Estonia (NATO and EU) – joined in designating 2,800 troops for a multi-national EU battle group. This is a stand-by unit designed for rapid deployment in a crisis. Similarly, with modern defense technology becoming too expensive for individual countries to be able to afford upgrades, the defense chiefs in Finland, Norway and Sweden have worked on drawing up common proposals aimed at ensuring that their defense budgets are used as cost-effectively as possible.

In a new development, the five governments have now decided to try ratcheting up their military and civilian cooperation into more concrete regional action. Their first step was to seek the report from Stoltenberg (who is the father of current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg) suggesting specific proposals for common Nordic security arrangements. The report, published in February 2009, got a positive initial response and some measures could be adopted in April when the report is reviewed by the five Nordic foreign ministers at a meeting in Iceland. No budgetary projections have been tabled yet.

How many of these proposals will actually come into force remains to be seen. Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb called some of the projects “unrealistic,” pointing out that there is no prospect of forging a military alliance even if defense cooperation between these countries seems set to increase. Nevertheless, a common maritime surveillance system and a possibility of link-up for military data between NATO and non-NATO countries would be a milestone for regional cooperation, especially in view of the developing “race for the Arctic.”

The urgency of getting an overall system in place has become more acute since Russia launched a bid to stake wider national claims for itself about the oil and gas and other mineral reserves in the Arctic, contesting long-standing claims there by Canada and Norway. After Russia planted its flag on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean in 2007, Canada has stepped up both its exploratory activity and its military presence in its territorial waters there.

The sea areas involved in the Stoltenberg plan are as diverse as the littoral states in the Nordic council. Both Norway and Denmark (with its autonomous territories Greenland and the Faroe Islands) are Arctic countries. Iceland is in the North Atlantic sea-lanes south-east of Greenland. Finland and Sweden have access to the Baltic Sea. In the Arctic, new east-west sea-routes for commercial vessels are expected to open up this year or next, a change ushering in a range of challenges from the need for search and rescue services to environmental and security issues.

A functioning common maritime surveillance system would allow Nordic countries to pool their vessels and icebreakers and to deploy coast guards and rescue services more effectively – a major looming need as new shipping routes open up between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Arctic Ocean.

Surveillance is therefore at the core of the Stoltenberg report. It calls for coordinated approaches involving satellites and air and maritime patrols to provide a common monitoring system for Nordic countries. An integrated maritime monitoring-system, the report says, should be capable of linking up to all the relevant existing systems at both national and multi-lateral levels. Currently, the Nordic maritime monitoring and early warning systems are lacking coordination and information exchange; responsibilities are often divided among several national institutions; and there is no over-arching framework for pooling this data. This fragmentation is due, legally, to differing national legislations and, technically, to the limitations of computer systems in the five countries.

The system envisaged now by the Stoltenberg report would not only pool information for the five Nordic nations but also allow rapid data-exchange with other nations involved in the region: Russia on the Baltic Sea and the Barents Sea (the part of the Arctic Ocean bordered by Russia and Scandinavia); the other Baltic states; and Canada and the U.S. on the North Atlantic.

Some building-blocks are in place already. NATO-members Denmark, Iceland and Norway already have a joint military maritime surveillance system that produces common situation reports, and it is being upgraded. Some other existing systems could be built on for wider integration of early-warning information about ecological threats or accidents requiring search-and-rescue. Russia, Norway and Iceland have a system for monitoring and talking to each other about oil tankers sailing from Murmansk to the U.S. via Norwegian and Icelandic waters. Already, information concerning search and rescue operations is exchanged via the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum that involves Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the U.S.

Oslo has also started work on an integrated civilian system for monitoring of the Norwegian parts of the Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea. Called “BarentsWatch,” it is cited in the Stoltenberg report as a core that other Nordic governments should join – rather than developing their own national systems. BarentsWatch is slated to develop further in the 2009–2016 timeframe to the point where it could incorporate systems of other littoral states and also provide rapid exchanges of information with Canada, Russia and the U.S.

Even on this scale, a common civilian monitoring system will only be truly effective, the report says, if it can exchange data and coordinate with the military systems already in place to collect data on traffic and security threats. This may be difficult to implement: the fact that Finland and Sweden are not NATO members is one hurdle, but a far bigger one is the objections in some capitals to sharing NATO’s military information with Russia.

A critical new need, in any future system, is satellite coverage of these sea areas, particularly the Arctic. At present, the Nordic countries purchase satellite services from U.S. and European suppliers, both for communication and for overhead imaging. The images are used, for example, to register ships’ positions, oil spills, “algal blooms” (explosive multiplication of algae that can threaten local eco-systems), ice formations and to gather information on weather conditions. However, most satellites are in geostationary orbit above the equator and therefore provide unsatisfactory data coverage of the Arctic Ocean.

Nordic governments are weighing plans for developing a common satellite monitoring system by 2020. It would be an essential tool in meeting their new common need for maritime surveillance and crisis management – a need that has now been recognized officially by these states.

Valentina Pop is a Romanian journalist writing on defense issues for the European Affairs news website EUobserver.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.