New Europe Meets Old Europe – the Baltic Sea Region as Global Frontrunner
The main theme at the 5th annual Baltic Development Forum summit was how to turn the Baltic Sea region into a global frontrunner, exploring the mix of old and new democracies, and mature and emerging markets. The more than 450 participants and 75 panellists included high level politicians, business executives, media representatives and prominent researchers, both from the Baltic Sea region and from other leading regions in the world.
Participants all agreed that the Baltic Sea region indeed has the potential to become a global frontrunner. Panellists pointed towards the differences in the region, but agreed that the diversity was a strength. The meeting between old and new democracies and markets create a huge potential for growth and development.
With EU enlargement finally in sight, panellists expressed optimism about the future, which is expected to bring further economic integration and growth. Enlargement is considered a benefit, not only to the acceding countries, but also to the EU. A lot of panellists pointed out that the accession countries in the Baltic Sea region are actually doing better than are some ‘old’ members of the EU. Enlargement will not only bring added stability to the EU, but also innovation and dynamism.
There was, however, also agreement on the fact that challenges remain. As President and CEO of SAS Group Jørgen Lindegaard phrased it: “The era of celebration is over. Now is the era of action”. There is still some work to be done, which was also emphasised by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who pointed out that “it is only once the distinction between old and new is eliminated – at least with regard to economic development – that the EU will be truly and fully complete”.
The important role of Russia was the point emphasised the most by panellists at the summit. Russia is a key player for European integration, from a security perspective as well as for economic reasons. Further integration of Russia into the European economy is considered a central objective. The finalising of the Common European Economic Space would be a great step towards this goal. Russian WTO membership is, however, a prerequisite for economic integration.
Many felt that the real comparative advantage of the Baltic Sea region is its position as a gateway to Russia. The Baltic Sea region is where the EU and Russia meet, which raises exciting perspectives for cooperation and economic development in the region. It is considered crucial to engage Russia in the regional cooperation efforts, and to ensure that Kaliningrad also benefits from EU enlargement.
Another issue, on which all participants could agree, was the need for regional cooperation. Many participants noted that the cooperation between the public and private sphere is needed to become a frontrunner. Einars Repse stated that: “Partnerships between the public and private sector is an essential factor in shaping the best policies for boosting competitiveness”, while Ainars Slesers emphasised that only if politicians, business people, academia and media work together hand in hand, would the region succeed.