The North Sea under pressure: is regional marine co-operation the answer? - European Union Committee Contents

Chapter 5: Future co-operation

165.  The statutory requirement to co-operate is enshrined in various pieces of EU legislation (see paragraph 7). As the use of the North Sea basin intensifies, there is a growing recognition of the complex inter-relations between factors affecting the marine environment and users of the sea.

The Maritime Spatial Planning Directive: a driver of future co-operation

166.  The European Commission explained the purpose of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD). It told us that in the sea basins around Europe, there is:

    "A far more transparent and stable view as to what economic developments are possible, and how best these can be organised in a manner that works both with the ecosystems in these sea basins and with the industries concerned, so that they can co-exist effectively … the planning of the use of marine space across borders was a very important element for us. This was also where we thought the added value was at European level. That is to achieve [marine planning] by the Member States, but in particular making sure that they work together across borders. That is the rationale for the Directive."[276]

167.  Most witnesses shared this vision, emphasising sharing and understanding rather than harmonising. The North Sea Commission (NSC) saw the Directive as the tool that could bring about the necessary interaction between stakeholders.[277] The European Commission told us that it was confident that the deadlines set in the legislation would ensure timely action with Member State spatial plans being delivered by April 2021 and further planning across sea basins at a later date.[278] The UK, The Netherlands and Germany were identified as Member States already making good progress.[279]

168.  The vast majority of witnesses saw the legislation as helping to improve co-operation, though some qualified their support by highlighting the need for increased action through existing technical, political and economic relationships.[280] Many also felt that a more strategic approach to national marine planning was needed, an approach which looked beyond national boundaries. In the words of the North Sea Region Programme (NSRP):

    "If we are addressing [marine planning] within the sea basin, we need to be talking about the same thing. That is one of the first core lessons of the whole co-operation experience. If we do not have the same concepts, the same terminology behind the things we are trying to explain, we will talk past each other. Step one has possibly been identified there."[281]

169.  While the benefits of a common approach to national marine planning are obvious, such an approach should appreciate that different Member States may have distinct priorities. A common approach is not the same as a common plan. The Directive mandates cross-border co-operation, and the NSC told us that "the fact that the Directive is asking the Member States to show they can work cross-border will be the key to [its] success."[282] Indeed, the effect of the Directive is that national plans developed in isolation and without the involvement of bordering Member States could be rendered useless. The German government told us:

    "There needs to be some form of understanding that marine areas bordering on each other cannot be allocated to uses completely excluding one another, like for instance raw material extraction areas next to nature and species conservation sites."[283]

170.  The German government described one positive experience of co-operation through BaltSeaPlan, which is discussed in paragraph 133 above.[284] The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) added that cross-border co-operation had the potential to focus decision-making,[285] and suggested that the Directive's lack of prescription was a strength, allowing for flexibility and accommodation.[286] The European Commission told us that bilateral co-operation was good, but that more could be done to "perhaps work a little more strategically."[287] Co-operation took place between the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and neighbouring North Sea countries when preparing the East Inshore and East Offshore Marine Plans (see paragraph 116).

171.  We welcome the recent introduction of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, particularly the obligation upon Member States to co-operate across national boundaries, but are conscious that its success will be contingent on effective implementation.

172.  We recommend that the UK Government and the devolved administrations initiate strategic discussions with bordering North Sea countries as the UK marine plans are being developed, so that areas of common interest and potential conflict can be identified and addressed early in the planning process. (Recommendation 17)


173.  With regard to delivering better co-operation in practice, the Commission emphasised that the Member States needed "to work out for themselves how they could best co-operate",[288] adding that "this is obviously going to vary according to each of the sea basins around the European Union."[289]

174.  The Commission's non-prescriptive approach begs the question of who should be taking the lead. The Commission saw its role largely as a facilitator and was content for Member States to take the initiative. While COSLA stressed that the principle of multi-level governance should be embedded in regional marine co-operation,[290] we believe that decisive political leadership is needed. On balance, it seems to us that this leadership should come from individual Member State governments. Some options are explored below; they are not mutually exclusive.


175.  As described above, the technology for establishing a North Sea Energy Grid exists, but progress has been hampered by regulatory and political constraints (see paragraphs 115-121). Overcoming these constraints will require strong leadership from national governments and the determination to make progress through individual projects. The EWEA advocated a pilot project involving one wind farm and one interconnector, which would allow regulators to collaborate and resolve any issues. They told us that the pilot could provide "a blueprint that would be able to be used across the North Sea."[291] As mentioned in paragraph 120 above, speakers at the January stakeholder conference in Edinburgh called for action in a flagship project.

176.  The German government highlighted its positive experience of co-operation in the Baltic Sea area. It called on regional and national partners from North Sea countries to co-operate in a marine planning project under the North Sea Region Programme:

    "BMVI would very much welcome and support it if regional and national partners from the North Sea countries were soon to co-operate in an [marine planning] project in the context of the INTERREG North Sea Region programme."[292]

A pilot project of this nature could be funded by the North Sea Region Programme, but would require decisive political leadership on the part of the initiating countries. The German government is willing to co-operate and the UK Government should look to work with them.

177.  The technology for establishing a North Sea Energy Grid exists, but progress has been hampered by regulatory and political constraints. Should the UK Government and other coastal states wish to achieve this objective, they should work together on a pilot project. Such a project would form part of the EU's move towards improved energy system governance and would involve enhanced regional co-operation.

178.  We recommend that the UK Government work with other North Sea Member States on the development of the pilot marine planning project in the North Sea, as suggested by the German government. This could be funded by the North Sea Region Programme. (Recommendation 18)


179.  Many witnesses wanted to improve co-operation while simplifying existing structures and without creating new ones. The Scottish Government said: "Moves to simplify [the current large number of players] would be welcome, particularly given the resource and capacity issues which arise in ensuring engaged and meaningful co-operation across the range of activity."[293] The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) was "keen to ensure that new arrangements … do not create new structures … but rather enhance the role that the established public bodies or co-operation structures have."[294] Such work could build on existing organisations such as the NSC and OSPAR, perhaps by permitting enhanced decision making within the latter organisation at the North Sea level.[295] The vision is of regional decisions informing national policy implementation rather than national policy disparities creating conflicts. To achieve this, the NSRP argued for a North Sea forum to bring the many specialist organisations together,[296] though COSLA commented on the pressures faced by authorities in meeting existing commitments.[297]


180.  Ann Bell described a possible North Sea Maritime Forum as follows:

    "We need all stakeholders involved. It is much wider than just fisheries; it is aquaculture. However, it is also energy—oil and gas and the North Sea grid. The North Sea grid is something that I use as the elephant in the room. If we have this North Sea grid, how it is going it impact on everything else? How are we going to learn to be collaborative before we start developing something? How are we going to consult stakeholders and help them develop the plans before they get to too far a stage?"[298]

181.  A similar forum in the fisheries sector led to the current ACs; the proposed North Sea forum would broaden the stakeholder base considerably. The Scottish Government said: "It is our view that the introduction of a forum for environmental and industry interests could be useful to provide a conduit between the formal structures already in place and the wider stakeholder community."[299] Not only would such a forum advise Member States, it would also provide a space for stakeholders and representatives from a range of sectors to come together and agree on mutually acceptable solutions to common problems. Informal, light-touch structures might be more conducive to co-operation than attempting to integrate different and often opposing regulatory regimes. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO) agreed that the various actors need to work together in order to work out their problems together.[300]

182.  The NSRP explained that numerous attempts had been made in the past to make such a forum work, but that barriers had included difficulties in ensuring the commitment and balanced representation of all participating states, and in managing and negotiating powers and interests within countries.[301] They suggested that "strong signals from national governments may be what is needed to move forward now."[302] The idea of a forum received support at the January stakeholder conference in Edinburgh but, like the NSRP, participants agreed that such a forum should have a focus and that areas of competence would need to be agreed.

183.  We support the idea of a North Sea Maritime Forum composed of relevant stakeholders. Strong leadership will be needed to manage competing interests in such a forum and we therefore urge the UK Government to take ownership of this idea. As a first step, we recommend that the UK Government work with the European Commission to identify a source of funding for the forum, which could involve engaging with the North Sea Region Programme. (Recommendation 19)


184.  The idea of a North Sea Strategy is ambitious. The European Commission advocated "a common vision or a plan for a given sea basin area",[303] and the NSC spoke of the need for a coherent strategy,[304] which should be tailored to the North Sea.[305]

185.  We stress, however, that a sea basin strategy has to be adapted to the specific needs and requirements of the area in question: a North Sea Strategy need not follow the Baltic Sea model. The Commission reminded us that "Member State commitment to the strategies is absolutely crucial … if they are not committed from the beginning to the end you can launch all the beautiful strategies that you want, but you are not going to deliver any results."[306] Funding such an ambitious project and coordinating the current co-operation initiatives in the North Sea would require careful consideration. In such a busy sea basin, such a vision may be difficult to realise, but the potential benefits justify the effort.


186.  Between 1984 and 2006, successive North Sea Conferences were convened to discuss pressures on the North Sea basin. The first such Conference, the International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea, was convened by the Federal Republic of Germany and took place in Bremen in 1984. A further five Conferences took place. At the last Conference, in Gothenburg in 2006, Ministers agreed not to meet again in this format, but to continue close contacts on North Sea environmental issues. OSPAR, in co-operation with the EU, was invited to facilitate a periodic follow-up, designed to safeguard the fulfilment of the commitments from the various Conferences.

187.  The Conferences enabled Ministers to come together to discuss the mounting pressures and potential conflicts arising from intensive use of the North Sea. This overarching perspective allowed the participants to make ambitious joint declarations on subjects such as the level of nutrients released into the sea, the reduction and phasing out of the release of hazardous substances into the sea, as well as a ban on dumping and incineration of waste at sea.[307] We are aware of the existence of the Northern European Energy Dialogue (NEED), involving Energy Ministers, but feel that a more holistic approach would have the potential to integrate the considerations of energy infrastructure and supply in the North Sea with other marine sectors.[308]

188.  Evidence from Norway[309] and Germany[310] suggested a desire for co-operative links to be pursued further; a new North Sea inter-ministerial group could be a way to take discussions forward. This could engage with partner ministries in North Sea countries, and would demonstrate political commitment at a high level. It would focus on broad transnational strategic issues, complementing rather than duplicating existing areas of dialogue and co-operation. Such engagement could result in the agreement of guidelines for a common cross-border approach to co-operation.

189.  We conclude that no existing body or mechanism has a broad enough remit, or is able, to facilitate the political co-operation required to make the necessary step-change in the management of the North Sea basin.

190.  Visionary leadership is required and we therefore recommend that the UK Government convene a North Sea ministerial conference to take stock of the overarching challenges and opportunities in the North Sea marine environment. This should build on the environmental focus of earlier ministerial conferences, and take a more holistic approach, extending to the consideration of economic sectors including shipping, fishing and energy. Such a ministerial conference should aspire to a common political vision for the North Sea, which, through genuine co-operation, delivers a sustainable and secure resource for the future. (Recommendation 20)

276     Q1, Q4 Back

277    Q34 (Kate Clarke) Back

278    Q4 Back

279    Q4 See Appendix 6 for more on marine planning in North Sea countries. Back

280   Written evidence from Dr Peter Jones (RMC0001) and Written evidence from the North Sea Region Programme (RMC0007) Back

281    Q35 (Matt Nichols) Back

282    Q34 (Kate Clarke) Back

283   Written evidence from the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (RMC0009) Back

284   Ibid. Back

285    Q21 (Jacopo Moccia) Back

286    Q15 (Jacopo Moccia) Back

287    Q5 Back

288   Ibid. Back

289   Ibid. Back

290   Written evidence from COSLA (RMC0006) Back

291    Q24 (Jacopo Moccia) Back

292   Written evidence from the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (RMC0009) Back

293   Written evidence from The Scottish Government (RMC0014) Back

294   Written evidence from COSLA (RMC0006) Back

295   Written evidence from WWF (RMC0010) Back

296   Written evidence from the North Sea Region Programme (RMC0007) Back

297   Written evidence from COSLA (RMC0006) Back

298    QQ59-60 Back

299   Written evidence from The Scottish Government (RMC0014) Back

300    Q61 (Barrie Deas) Back

301   Written evidence from the North Sea Region Programme (RMC0007) Back

302   Ibid. Back

303    Q5 Back

304   Written evidence from the North Sea Commission (RMC0003) Back

305    Q45 (Kate Clarke) Back

306    Q11 Back

307   North Sea Commission, The North Sea, An Integrated Ecosystem Approach to Sustainable Development: [Accessed 6 February 2015] Back

308   This conference of energy ministers and high-level representatives from Member States in northern Europe last met in London in 2013 to discuss the conditions required for increased investment in modern energy infrastructure. A meeting did not take place in 2014, despite the fact that the 2013 conference expressed an intention to do so. Back

309   "The [Norwegian government] will … continue and strengthen co-operation in existing international forums to achieve and maintain good environmental status in the North Sea and Skagerrak" in Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, Integrated Management of the Marine Environment of the North Sea and Skaggerak Management Plan, p 141  Back

310   Written evidence from the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (RMC0009) Back

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