"Qualifying the Region for the Future - Implementing the EU Baltic Sea Strategy"
13 October 2010, Tallinn
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to heartily welcome you all to our wonderful city and to this most up-to-date conference with respect to the development of our region. The theme of the current gathering – qualifying the region for the future – clearly reflects our aims and hopes towards ensuring a prosperous, secure, and sustainable future for our people in the light of growing globalisation.
Along with the implications of globalisation, there are other common concerns that need to be confronted together, everything from lasting economic recovery and demographic change to – last but certainly not least – preserving the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea. Today I will focus on three key issues: economy, education, and effectiveness, as well as strengthening the linkage between them.
On the eve of the second decade of the new millennium, we have entered a phase of economic recovery while our region has maintained its position as one of the most dynamic areas in the world. We have overcome the peak of the crisis and now it is ever more important to focus on lessons learned and continue to lay a solid basis for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth around the shores of the Baltic Sea.
It is important to rethink the appropriate approach towards upgrading our competitiveness, which was also pointed out in the recent State of the Region Report published by the Baltic Development Forum, and start taking full advantage of our unique level of regional linkages.
Although we must admit that it is not an easy time for deepening regional collaboration and linking national policies, we also have to admit that our resources can and should be used more efficiently. For that, coherent action between all regional co-operation bodies is vital.
Moreover, history has taught us that if we start waiting for better times to arrive, the consequence could weigh heavily on our future. Already in the 1930s Estonian diplomat and foreign minister Karl Robert Pusta envisaged that the co-operation of the Baltic Sea states should be rebuilt on an existing regional system – a Baltic system – as he called it. Rather than giving entirely new responsibilities to countries, Pusta suggested focusing on simplicity and efficiency, without creating new structures with new responsibilities.
Today, more than 70 years later, we have the opportunity to take full advantage of the Baltic system, as we now have a valuable macro-regional tool in our hands – namely the Baltic Sea Strategy of the European Union (BSS) – and we should make the most of it.
The strategy, which was adopted with vigour, needs our combined efforts to be implemented in the same spirit, otherwise the momentum will be lost. For that, further political engagement is required to align regional efforts with the activities pursued at the national or EU level in order to fully implement the action plan.
I believe that the BSS holds the potential to become a concrete representation of the EU2020 strategy, which envisions a unified action for delivering more growth and jobs to Europe during the next decade. And this will contribute to the development of the entire region.
In the words of the great Dane Uffe-Ellemann-Jensen, we need to tear down barriers, red tape, and bureaucracy. For years, we have spoken about removing all the barriers that hamper the free movement of goods and services in our region. On the eastern borders of the EU the border crossing of trucks still takes around 48 hours, and despite recurring promises, there is no actual will to find a permanent solution to this drawn-out issue.
At the European Union level, there has recently been welcome progress in launching a new internal market strategy. Estonia sees the aim of re-launching the single market with as few exceptions as possible, along with the thorough implementation of the single market action plan, to be essential for further economic integration in our region. Moreover, these efforts should be complemented with the establishment of a truly single digital market.
This is the development we have not only expected, but in which Estonia has been actively engaged for years as a promoter of liberal economy, including free trade. And I am pleased to highlight that we have not been alone in this pursuit, as the exemplary cooperation with our EU partners in the Nordic-Baltic region has once more demonstrated. We should not forget that only if we manage to efficiently pool our efforts among the EU27 will we be able to compete successfully with Asia and America.
I believe that the absence of a digital market has been one of the main factors hampering the competitiveness of the European Union thus far. That is why I suggest dedicating as much attention to the development of a digital infrastructure as we dedicate to the building of transportation networks, energy connections, or social inclusion. In case of the latter, new technology is a useful tool for offering a wide range of possibilities to develop a more open and transparent government.
In Estonia we have built an advanced e-governance infrastructure in order to provide complex services combining information from several government databases and to deliver secure and user-friendly online services to our people. With the help of the BSS we are making efforts to enhance and improve the use of e-signatures first in the Baltic Sea region and, if successful, in the rest of the EU as well.
I would argue that the effective use of new technology has been and still is one of the best investments for the economic growth and well-being of Estonia. Furthermore, besides making public services more efficient and transparent, we have been able to reduce costs at the same time. I believe this is something we all try to achieve.
In order to fully realise the digital potential looming in our region, it is necessary not only to ensure the free trade of e-commerce and e-services, but to enhance the public-private and cross-sector partnership in this field.
Yesterday you had the opportunity to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum and see how Estonian peasants lived in the 19th century. Since that, enormous changes have taken place. However, the basic values of people remain unchanged: we are still hard-working and pursue knowledge and good education.
Today our common goal is to move ahead with developing a knowledge-based and competitive society, and the digital skills of all people irrespective of social background or age are an essential part of this. I believe everyone is entitled to be a part of the digital era since commerce, public, social and health services, as well as learning, are increasingly moving online. For this to happen successfully, education on the matter is crucial.
Thus I am pleased that in the framework of this year’s conference there are several workshops in which educational matters are being discussed, particularly cooperation between universities and lifelong learning.
Last March we had the opportunity to discuss knowledge-based local governance at a special conference at the University of Tallinn. At the conference Ene Ergma, speaker of the Estonian Riigikogu, proposed we establish an Institute of Technology for the whole region, which I strongly support along with the efforts to implement a virtual think-tank for the region.
There are regional initiatives that have already reached their implementation stage, like the Baltic University Programme. It promotes the networking of universities, local governments, and NGOs in order to accumulate regional knowledge on sustainable rural and urban development, renewable energy, and other important development-related issues. I hope this serves as an inspiring showcase for future cooperation in our region.
Also the EU2020 strategy foresees improvement of the conditions for research and development aiming at improving education levels and reducing school drop-outs. In fact, all EU2020’s goals foster research and development. This is for the benefit of the entire region, as education, competitiveness, and the environment are all intertwined in our most interconnected area.
This is true for every aspect of life in the Baltic Sea region, despite diversity with regard to alignment with different international bodies – there is so much more beyond that.
There is our Mare Nostrum – our Baltic Sea, our rocky shores and silent woods, our rich flora and fauna, our mild summers and crisp winters. But the greatest asset of all is our people, and the values that we share.
I am convinced that this is the main factor behind our successful cooperation today, as it emerges not so much from binding legal treaties or documents, as from our common will to make our region more prosperous, secure, and environmentally sustainable. And this the best instrument for overcoming all common challenges together now and in the future.
* Baltic Sea States Subregional Co-operation