CONFERENCE CALL: Competing forms of cooperation

By bne IntelliNews June 9, 2010

Mike Collier in Vilnius -

"Two summits - one city" was the phrase used to promote the two-day Baltic Development Forum (BDF) and Baltic Sea States Summit (BSSS) held in Vilnius, Lithuania on June 1-2. Added to the slogan might easily have been "three venues, four press passes and five prime ministers" to give a better idea of the complexity of what was happening.

The two days were like being locked in a vast labyrinth with interesting people randomly appearing and disappearing around unexpected corners. The dash to collect the right badge to gain access to the Litexpo exhibition centre in the west of the town, the National Gallery in the north, the government building in the centre and the presidential palace in the Old Town was at least as challenging as chatting with heads of state and admirals of industry, particularly as prime ministers tend to stay in one place while talking, but the accreditation badges were being carted around town like pizzas.

The large selection of seminars, workshops and discussions taking place at the BDF was impressive, but led to a situation in which you would pass a minister or business bigwig hurrying in the opposite direction and wonder whether there wasn't something more interesting happening where you just came from. It was probably just as well that invitees Russian PM Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided they had better things to do, as their presences would have sent the complexity to another level.

But amidst the mayhem - which is always part of Vilnius' charm - and despite the lack of blockbuster treaty signings, there was plenty of food for thought.

Defining the area

It was noticeable how Scandinavians - and particularly Scandinavian politicians - liked to use cuddly words in their speeches: integration, cooperation, sustainability. One senior Danish speaker even came out with the startling statement: "When it's about business and politics, it's not about winners and losers." Meanwhile the Balts, Slavs and businessmen preferred words like opportunity, competition and growth.

The best example of the dissonance came during a discussion about how to "brand" a region which no one seems quite sure how to define (Norway and Iceland are included, Belarus is not; Russia is included, but often as an exception to prove the rule).

After lots of high-minded Nordic talk about unity through cultural diversity, which got the well-scrubbed audience nodding sagely, it was left to the energetic Bo Larsen of Cruise Baltic, which acts as an intermediary between the ports and cruise lines operating in the Baltic Sea, to blow away the cobwebs. "So how many of you have actually been on a cruise?" he demanded. Two hands went up from an audience of around 100. "Jesus Christ, take a cruise! Get to know your own region!" Larsen said with admirable exasperation.

Sitting next to Larsen was the more restrained but equally pragmatic Bertolt Flick, chairman of the airBaltic airline, which has morphed from a Latvian state also-ran into a genuine regional force. Flick diverged from the feel-good line too, arguing that it was up to individual member states to worry about their own branding efforts. "We have to get our house in order locally before we go international. If Lithuania or Latvia does more tourism promotion, then it benefits all our businesses in all the countries. Then perhaps we can put it all together," Flick said.

Flick's company is currently airline of the year with the European Regions Airline Association, so it seemed appropriate that Cruise Baltic also picked up something for the mantelpiece during the BDF. It won the Baltic Sea Award 2010 in recognition of its work coordinating 10 countries with 26 destinations and 45 partners - a good example of practical ground-level (or sea-level) economic collaboration.

Euro wannabe

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was also in town and following him like a lab rat around the maze garnered a few interesting tidbits. "If there was still the need to demonstrate how interconnected we are, we now have the Greek crisis," he said, warning darkly of sinister speculators "surfing the wave" of doubt about the future.

Luckily, Eurozone wannabe Estonia was on hand to show how attractive the zone remains and Barroso assured everyone the final decision on Estonia's accession in 2011 would be made in a "strict economic manner and not a political line."

Surprisingly, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip chose not to go big on his country's current status as poster child for fiscal reform and instead asked for the creation of a single EU-wide digital marketplace. "Why can't a Swedish entrepreneur open a virtual business in Latvia? Why can't a Finnish tourist use his mobile phone to pay for parking in Tallinn? We should remove those barriers," Ansip said. Expect to see a lot more on this topic coming out of Estonia in future.

And despite the talk of speaking with one voice, the final act of the two-day performance showed the real state of play. At the conclusion of the BSSS, the delegation heads of nearly all the countries held a joint press conference, deep in the bowels of the Lithuanian National Gallery, which Finnish PM Matti Vanahanen used to call for an air traffic control-style system for monitoring ships in the Baltic and backed the principle of financial penalties for Eurozone members who break the rules. But the one delegation head not present was Viktor Zubkov of Russia: he chose instead to have his own press conference outside for the benefit of Russian media.

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