A region on the rise

  • 2002-10-24
  • Wolfe Nielsen
Former Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, now chairman of the Baltic Development Forum, has a direct stake in the emergence of the Baltic Sea region as an economic and poltical force in Europe. Line Wolfe Nielsen talked with him during the forum in Copenhagen earlier this month.

While the Baltic Sea region tries to hold its own in the European Union it must also help progress in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and foster ties with Russia.

The growing concern over the EU's relations with the Kaliningrad region was prominent on the Baltic Development Forum's agenda.

The Baltic Sea region is still more of a political concept than an actual market when you look at the trading going on between the involved nations. What can be done to change that?

You always have to start with a vision, before you can turn anything into reality. But in general, we have to remove boundaries like customs, regulations and, most importantly, mental barriers that often make it difficult to regard your own country as part of a region. These borders you'll find in both old and new countries of the EU, and we have to do away with them if we should turn the political vision into reality.

How can the positive development of the Baltic region during the last decade be transformed into sustainable development?

There's a lot of this "you know what you have, but not what you'll get" attitude, but I strongly believe in the words of philosopher Emanuel Kant, who lived in the then-called city of Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad. He said: "The internal freedom is a peace imperative. If you trade freely you don't make wars."

Once politicians start to do away with legal and administrative borders and start to lead (in a way) that also does away with the fear of what you'll get. It will work as well as when you lift up a blocking rock in a small stream; once it's gone everything starts to move again.

You've stated that the Baltic Sea region - including Russia - have become a symbol of constructive partnership in a world that, after Sept. 11, is are in urgent need of role models. What is it exactly that you think the world can learn from the way the Baltic Sea states cooperate?

Maybe I exaggerated. (Laughs.) The region certainly has the potential of becoming a role model. The way I see it, with the upcoming enlargement of the European Union and NATO, the Baltic Sea region is in a position to become a valuable political partner for the United States and a source of economic growth and entrepreneurial activity. Furthermore, the region could play a crucial role as a leader in research and development. The fortune of the Baltic Sea region is a combination of shared history and geography,. You see, water connects just as much as it divides.

Kaliningrad is often explained as being a test case between European and Russian relations. What's your view on that?

Well, I see it as a litmus test, certainly not just a matter of technical issues. Once this practical issue with visas has been solved, then the EU will have to find a big portion of willingness and generosity in dealing with the exclave. On the other hand, Russia has to be more willing to open up for investments and give Kaliningrad a chance to use the possibilities that will start to occur. If all partners can live up to that, then the test will not have failed. But it's crucial that no one forgets about Kaliningrad. Having a small spot left on it's own might undermine the security of the region –- and they've suffered enough as it is. Developing Kaliningrad might also help Russia get into the World Trade Organization.

The enlargement has so far been a very technical process with the implementation of laws. What can be done to get a little more enthusiasm and public support behind the project?

I always use the example of the Marshall Plan when I want someone to understand the enlargement project. The EU is only spending a fraction of the amount of money America poured into Europe after World War II. That turned out to be a very good investment.

According to the Rome Treaty, peace and freedom are the goals of the EU. But having goals also requires the means to reach them. The economy is the best tool we have. So more information about the immediate problems and the long-term reward is needed. We also need to get the debate about the cost of enlargement to spread from the elite circles and then stop worrying about the price.

What visions do you have for the Baltic region – looking beyond the enlargement?

Here I seek inspiration in the past. History shows us that the free movement of goods, trade and people within the Baltic Sea region created one of the most prosperous and inspiring regions in the world. I think that potential can blossom when and if we can make the vision of an open marketplace happen. The first step is enlargement. The second –- and the most difficult one -– is to strengthen relations with Russia. There are strong mental borders on both sides. In Russia they are insecure about the aims of enlargement. Are we going to annex Kaliningrad or what? As for us, the EU and the candidate countries, we're dictated by history. But we have to look into a closer relationship in the near future.