A review of the One BSR final conference in Helsinki
’The Region is chasing a Phantom’ Anthony Jay, Council of the Baltic Sea States
by Kerli Kirsimaa
The closing event of the One Baltic Sea Region Project, a two-year venture as part of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, was held on 4th of September in Helsinki, Finland. The overall aim of the project was to address perspectives on how to better connect countries around the Baltic Sea, competing globally as one, particularly in terms of talent flows and tourist attraction. The topics highlighted at the conference were talent retention, city co-operation and public-private partnership success stories, as well as the role of identity-building in the Region. I was present as an external participant and inevitably, as an urban planning specialist, reflected upon the overall event particularly in terms of city competition and place branding.
After eight hours of conferencing, it could be concluded that achieving the aims of the project is quite a challenge. Though a number of challenges and strategies were discussed, no concrete answers could be proposed, despite the project running for a substantial amount of time. It is not easy, ’’the region is chasing a Phantom’’, as Anthony Jay from the Council of the Baltic States phrases it.
Perhaps one of the obstacles that impede the creation of a unified region is the competition between its cities. ‘’It is never going work as one region, there will always be competition’’, was also heard from one seemingly sceptic participant. Can Tallinn really shake hands with Helsinki or Vilnius shake hands with Riga and each of them not compete with each-other for more visitors, investments, places of attention in cities, shoppers, talent, events, etc.? Is it not already deep-rooted in our mentality that one is always aiming to do better than its neighbour? Another example of neighbouring rivalry here, are flight routes. If a tourist from America, China or Japan wants to visit Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius, the only possible closest access would be via the airports of Stockholm or Helsinki, and unless it was their initial plan, will they even make it to Vilnius after all? This all raises the question whether a so-called One Baltic Sea Region is really possible? What is meant is a region where Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Germany, Finland and Russia compete together to attract talent, enhance labour mobility and promote tourism, in other words, where we all co-operate smartly.
Insights presented at the conference from Helsinki, Tallinn and Stockholm suggest that Scandinavia is facing problems that are slightly different from those in the Baltic States. Creating a common region as such is extremely difficult as one needs to realise the cross-border challenges and differences in each country; ie. economic, political, social or cultural. According to a survey presented by Tendensor AB, the Baltics are mostly associated with such phrases as ‘’the grey rock’’ or ‘’former Soviet’’. Simply, the Baltic States in general are less known to the wider world than are the Scandinavian countries, Russia or Germany (although Tallinn was said to become increasingly more popular than its two neighbours in the South). Here is where the differences in the economic development pop in. Whilst in Scandinavian countries there is enough attention and interests by tourist, and talents are seeking to relocate to those countries, Scandinavian officials tackle different problems on how to also support their further longer living-working stay such as the language barrier or documentation (visa). Then we have the Baltic States, the ‘grey rock’, lacking behind in development, that are relatively unknown in the world. The Baltics are, first of all, in the phase of attracting tourists, only after a certain level is reached in that respect, the next phase, where the Scandinavians currently are, can be entered – a phase where emphasis lies on how to make the most talented people stay longer and support the economic and cultural development of the country in question.
In case of the Baltic States, one could actually use their ’affordability’ compared to their Scandinavian counterparts. Thus, those countries could be advertised more as places where ’less is more.’ Another practical example discussed as a tool for help the Baltic States especially, but also other countries in the region to attract more tourist and make the region more competitive for talent retention, is the ’Bloggers Competition’ programme. An idea would be to set programmes for talented writers from Japan, South-Korea or China, for instance, to allow them to get the financed opportunity to travel to some countries in the Baltic Sea Region, where they must keep an attractive blog about the local culture and thereby advertise that in their home country.
To conclude, more co-operation and understanding of each other’s political and economic struggles is required to create One Baltic Sea Region. Whatever the Baltic Sea Region Common Identity will be, it remains still to be constructed. One is for sure, we all have something in common, and that is the Baltic Sea. The Sea must be used for creating an identity which in turn should encourage better co-operation.
Kerli Kirsimaa is a young Urban & Environmental planner. She holds an MSc from the University of Wageningen. Originally from Estonia, Kerli has worked on several urban planning projects in Europe and elsewhere.
Crossing the Baltic was pleased to have to opportunity to participate in the conference, too. Our editor-in-chief spoke on the final panel about identity in the Baltic Sea Region.
More about the project: onebsr.eu/about-2/