Diverging Interests between the Commission and the Member States
The Case against the Northern Dimension
A Postmodern Vision for the EU
It has been maintained that the European Union can best be considered a political system. Following this argument, foreign policy making in the EU should also be approached from a systemic perspective. Roughly, three main sources of foreign policy can be identified: the Common Foreign and Security Policy under Pillar II, external relations of the EU under Pillar I, and national foreign policies of the member states. The Northern Dimension policy is an interesting case in point because in various ways it touches upon all three areas.
Thus, officially, the Northern Dimension is an EU external relations policy and is therefore located within the responsibility of the Commission. However, it has been adopted as a response to an initiative of one member state, Finland, and it can safely be argued that essentially national foreign policy interests formed the base for this advance by Finland. Furthermore, it has also been suggested that the Northern Dimension can be considered a type of security policy, at least from the point of view of an extended, post-modernist, security policy agenda.
Not only for this reason is the Northern Dimension innovative and challenging for the EU. It is also meant to work and achieve its goals without any new institutional arrangements or additional money being spent. Indeed, these two aspects have widely been considered the main reasons for the relatively quick adoption of the initiative as an EU policy. At the same time, however, they have been the cause for substantial criticism and allegations that the initiative offers little to the Union beyond its rhetoric.
This paper will explore whether there is any basis to such claims. It will be argued that so far the Northern Dimension has indeed been rather poor in substance, at least when taking as a base for judgment the Action Plan it is guided by. Nevertheless, the initiative has considerable potential by virtue of how it is supposed to work. This is not to say that concrete outcomes won’t have to be achieved as well, but the way they might be reached is what could make the Northern Dimension act as a model for the EU’s external relations.
Before looking at the propositions on its functioning, however, I will review the objectives of the Northern Dimension policy, thus summarizing the ‘rhetoric’ about the initiative. In the main part of the work, I will first regard the most salient criticisms against the Northern Dimension, above all the alleged lack of substance. Then, the potential beyond the pragmatic goals of the policy as spelled out in the Action Plan, i.e. in what sense it could still make a positive impact, will be explained.
The Northern Dimension was first brought up as a policy initiative for the European Union by Finland in September 1997. The background of the proposal was provided by the fact that with the accession of Sweden and Finland to the EU in 1995, the Union acquired not only a natural northern dimension, but also a 1300km long, if perhaps not permanent but certainly long-term, external border with Russia. Both of these facts, it was held, threw up some potential problems and dangers and, at the same time, a whole array of opportunities concerning all of the EU. The initiative was recognized EU-wide at the Luxembourg European Council in December 1997. After further preparations and exchanges of views between the Council, the Commission, and various other actors involved the policy took concrete shape and gained a point of reference with the endorsement of the Action Plan at the Feira European Council in June 2000.
One of the main characteristics of the Northern Dimension from the beginning, and of the Action Plan in particular, was its exclusive focus on low-politics issues. Thus, the main fields of action were identified as infrastructural issues, especially energy networks, telecommunications, and transport, environmental concerns with a main focus on nuclear safety, industrial development and cross-border trade and investment, gaps in standards of living and public health provision, human and scientific resources, crime prevention, and, as a special point, the region of Kaliningrad. According to Heininen, the overarching aim behind all of these topics can be summarized as increasing stability and security in the region through building up and intensifying positive interdependence between the EU and the partner countries by cooperation across national borders.
Geographically, the target area for the ND reaches from Iceland in the West to Northwestern Russia in the East and from the Barents Sea in the North to the Southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the South. It thus includes the non-EU members states of Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Russian Federation.
The Action Plan can be seen as a reply by the European Commission to the initial Finnish proposal of 1997. The two don’t differ much with regards to the fields of action identified within them. Even though the Action Plan is supposed to be the reference document for the ND policy and as such much more elaborate and concrete than the Finnish initiative, it has actually been widely criticized for its vagueness and generality. So much so, that Catellani, for example, ascertains that it is difficult to disagree on its content.
The novelties with respect to the Northern Dimension policy, and thus those aspects that make it particularly interesting from an academic point of view, do not reside in the objectives of the policy mentioned above, however. Rather, they can be found in the way the policy is supposed to operate. Here, five main ideas can be named.
First, the ND is a policy without a specific budget being allocated to it. In other words, no additional funds will be spent on it. Instead, its implementation shall take place within the frame of existing Community budgetary instruments, above all the TACIS, PHARE, and INTERREG programs. To this end, there has also, more recently, surfaced a realization of a need for improved alignment and coordination of these instruments. Funds are furthermore supposed to come from international finance institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank Group, and the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB).
Second, and related, the ND will be carried out within the existing institutional framework of the EU. Of relevance in this respect are the Association Agreements with the candidate countries, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed with Russia, the Common Strategy on Russia (CSR), and the EEA Agreement with Norway and Iceland.
Third, the partner countries in the ND shall not merely be treated as objects of the policy. Rather, the intention is to actively involve them in the process and to include them in decision-shaping, if not in decision-making.
Fourth, other regional actors such as the Council of Baltic Sea States (CBSS), the Barents Euro Arctic Council (BEAC), and the Arctic Council (AC) have also been envisaged to closely cooperate and play a significant role in the implementation of the ND. Their expertise is to be utilized.
Finally, there is an emphasis on cross-border cooperation within the ND on a sub-national and sub-regional level. This is particularly aimed at the Russian areas that form part of the ND, keeping in mind that Moscow is quite distant geographically and administratively.
In typical EU-speak, the ND is thus supposed to bring ‘added value’ primarily through better horizontal coordination of existing programs and institutions, both Communitarian as well as in connection with those from outside the Union, e.g. technical bodies, and through increased synergies. It is precisely these five points in which the real potential of the initiative resides but, at the same time, these have also been the aspects about the ND that have been the most challenging for the EU. Indeed, the Commission has actually been rather critical toward the latter three. As an immediate effect, the formulations in the Action Plan describing the roles of the non-EU institutional actors in the ND, for example, have been changed to make them less pronounced than was the case both in the initial Finnish proposal and in the conclusions of the first Foreign Minister’s Conference on the ND in 1999.
Diverging Interests between the Commission and the Member States
The ND initiative, in its original formulation, thus truly follows a spirit of a ‘Europe of regionalities’. What was envisaged was an inclusive transboundary regionalism, with cross-border cooperation and on national, regional and local levels and a degree of decentralized decision-making. The intention of a bottom-up-approach to governance was also part of this idea. Heininen maintains, that ‘in North Europe (this) regionalism is seen as a realistic possibility, even as a new resource for development’. It could, moreover, be regarded as a postmodernist way of tackling security and stability problems in the region through blurring the EU’s external borders and thus overcoming previous dividing lines. Browning reminds us that this is in the best tradition of the EU as a civilian power.
It is not difficult to see why it has been problematic for the EU to accept an enhanced role for other regional bodies and an almost equal role for partner countries in the ND as well as an increased profile for municipalities and regions. Quite simply, these elements of the ND policy, which Catellani summarizes under the term ‘multilevel cooperation and implementation’, are seen by the Commission as potentially decreasing the EU’s actorness in the region and negatively affecting the authority of the core vis-à-vis the periphery. As Wessels points out, ‘(r)egionally delimited views of the Union could lead to a fragmentation reducing the unity of the EU in its international performance’. This illustrates very well the Commission’s suspicions. As a consequence, the role of the regional actors has so far not been one of active participation in policy formulation and implementation but rather one of selective information provision at the Commission’s request, if at all. Criticism of the de-facto-monopolization and centralization of decision-making in implementing the ND by the Commission has also come from the regional and local authorities, and Catellani maintains that the ‘equal-partner’-role for non-EU Northern Dimension-states also never really materialized.
The original idea of the Finnish proposal of a rather postmodernist move to decentralization and regionality has been almost completely turned around and, with the Action Plan, the inventive aspects of the original NDI have been subsumed and integrated into a more traditional modern discourse. This latter discourse and the Action Plan capitalize, above all, the aspect of the ND as a policy of external relations and thus a clear distinction between the EU and the outside, i.e. Russia, the advantages the EU can draw from the ND in order to become a more unified international actor and of having a policy for the Northern region, and the positive ‘side-effect’ of greater coherence of and coordination between the various Community budgetary instruments. This development was, somewhat ironically, fostered by the way Finland tried to market its NDI in order to garner support for it within the EU, since the above were almost exactly the points the Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen stressed when introducing the initiative first as well as in a subsequent letter to Commission President Santer. Obviously, it was feared that the NDI would otherwise not gain enough acceptance.
Interestingly, and by contrast, between the launch of the NDI in 1997 and the adoption of the Action Plan in 2000 there was never a real dissent about the objectives of the policy, although this is probably at least partly due to the rather unclear formulation of the Action Plan and previous documents that remain open to various interpretations.
To summarize, the ND was initiated by Finland as a genuine regional policy which would not only affect the EU’s external relations but also considerably touch upon the internal functioning of the EU with its focus on horizontal coordination of present programs and institutions, and on active involvement of the partner countries, the regional fora, and sub-national and sub-regional actors in the realization of the ND concept. The Union, however, has mainly been interested in the ND as a tool for enhancing its international role and for supporting existing policies and actions with respect to Russia and the Baltics. The result has been an Action Plan that, besides containing only rather nebulous goals and hardly any concrete measures, also is much less ambitious than the original NDI as concerns the implementation of the policy, i.e. how it is supposed to work.
 Stenlund P. and Marja Nissinen (1999) ‘A Northern Dimension for the Policies of the European Union’, Virtual Finland, Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. http://virtual.finland.fi; Council of the European Union, Action Plan for the Northern Dimension in external and cross-border policies of the European Union 2000-2003, 14 June 2000
 Heininen, L. (2001) ‘Ideas and Outcomes: Finding a Concrete Form for the Northern Dimension Initiative’ in: Ojanen, Hanna (ed.), The Northern Dimension: Fuel for the EU?, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs & Institut für Europäische Politik, 2001, pp. 20-53.
 Catellani, N. (2001) ‘The Multilevel Implementation of the Northern Dimension’ in: Ojanen, Hanna (ed.), The Northern Dimension: Fuel for the EU?, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs & Institut für Europäische Politik, 2001, pp. 54-77, here p. 56.
 Catellani, op. cit., p. 59.
 Heininen, op. cit., p. 46.
 Browning C. (2001) ‘The Construction of Europe in the Northern Dimension’, COPRI Working Paper 39: 2001, p. 3.
 Catellani, op. cit., p. 54-55.
 Wessels, W. (2000) ‘Introduction: The Northern Dimension as a challenging task’ in: Gianni Bonvicini and Tapani Vaahtoranta and Wolfgang Wessels (eds.), The Northern EU: National Views on the Emerging Security Dimension, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs & Institut für Europäische Politik, 2000, pp. 18-29, here p.19.
 Haukkala, H. (2001) ‘Comment: National Interests versus Solidarity Towards Common Policies’ in: Ojanen, Hanna (ed.), The Northern Dimension: Fuel for the EU?, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs & Institut für Europäische Politik, 2001, pp. 107-115, here p. 111.
 Catellani, N. (2001a) ‘Short and Long-Term Dynamics in the EU’s Northern Dimension’, COPRI Working Paper 41: 2001.
 Haukkala, H. (2001a) ‘Succeeding without success? – The Northern Dimension of the European Union’, Northern Dimensions – Yearbook of Finnish Foreign Policy 2001, pp. 37-49, here p. 40.