The intergovernmental Barents cooperation was initiated by Norway under foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg after the fall of the Soviet Union; and it was formalized when the Foreign Ministers of Norway, Russia, Finland, Sweden and representatives of Denmark, Iceland and the European Commission signed the Kirkenes Declaration on 11 January 1993.
On the same occasion, representatives of 13 member regions, governors and their equivalents, together with representatives of the indigenous peoples, signed a protocol of cooperation that established the Barents Regional Council as a forum to promote interregional contacts in the northernmost parts of Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden and work together for the development of the Barents Region.
The Barents regional cooperation includes now 8 regions and counties: Nordland and Troms og Finnmark in Norway, Västerbotten and Norrbotten counties in Sweden, and the regions of Lapland, Oulu Region, Kainuu and North Karelia (from 2016) in Finland. As of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all activities involving Russia in the Barents Euro-Arctic cooperation are suspended.
The Barents Cooperation promotes people-to-people contacts and economic development and creates good conditions for interregional exchange in many different fields; e.g., culture, indigenous peoples, education, youth, trade, information, environment, health and transport. The Barents Cooperation is regarded as an integral part of creating a stable, democratic and prosperous Europe.
The participating countries take turns at chairing the cooperation. In January 2008, there was established an International Barents Secretariat, which is to provide technical support for the multilateral coordinated activities within the framework of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Barents Regional Council. This Secretariat is located in Kirkenes in the same building as the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.
The last three chairmanships were as follows:
County of Finnmark in Norway, 2017-2019
County Administrative Board of Västerbotten in Sweden, 2019-2021
Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Russia, 2021-2023 (activities involving Russia suspended in March 2022)
Cooperation has continued under a Friends of the Presidency format among Finland, Sweden and Norway in anticipation of the Future Presidency of the region of North Karelia in Finland, set to take place in the period 2023-2025.