Viewpoint: Mārtiņš Panke, Foreign Investors' Council in Latvia

It sometimes seems that life was easy for those who were responsible for setting the strategic goals for Latvia in the 1990s and 2000s. All they had to do was look at a list of international organizations and pick which which one we should join next. We pocketed WTO  membership in 1999, and pulled off an impressive stunt in 2004 by ticking off both the EU and NATO.

Then in 2014 Latvia surprised everyone by entering the Eurozone (not technically a separate international organization, I know). After that there was a bit of head-scratching, which was quickly interrupted by someone saying “Wait a minute! We should join the OECD next!” So, in 2016 we did just that.

Since then there has been some confusion, because it seems that there are no more international organizations left to join (except maybe for OPEC, but they are not picking up the phone). So how do we choose our next milestone?

Well, you could say we have graduated from high school, then made it through the university, and now are faced with the challenge to come up with a much more sophisticated question: what to do with your life?

Some possible ideas have been floated. For example, ‘reaching the EU’s average living standards’, but it lacks the necessary drama and hence hasn’t caught on particularly well. ‘Becoming a Scandinavian/Nordic country’ in terms of living standards and ethical standards (but not taxes). That sounds a bit better, but does it really cut it?

I think the choice we are facing now is far more complex because of the distance we have already covered. For example, 20 years ago when the Foreign Investors Council in Latvia had its first meeting with Latvia’s government, investors suggested that in order to improve the business environment we should put up more road signs and only police, ambulance and firefighter vehicles should be allowed to have red-and-blue lights and sirens. In a similar meeting this year we were discussing Latvia’s opportunities to embrace digitalization and improve competitiveness of our universities. In other words, we have picked all the low-hanging fruits and now have to reach for the ones which are higher up.

Actually, now is a good time to discuss this topic, because, as you are reading this, the next National Development Plan 2021-2027 is being drawn up in some ministry meeting room. If the ambition for this document is to set the strategic goal for the whole country, there should be an open discussion about what our vision really is.

In case you don’t know, the vision of the current National Development Plan 2014-2020 is “Economic breakthrough – for the greater well-being of Latvia!” Don’t worry if you had missed this important piece of information. As we all know, our real goal during these years was joining the OECD.

But now we have to start setting our own agenda like grown-ups do. Instead of waiting for someone outside to give us pointers, we have to come up with a decent vision ourselves. Something that unites and motivates us. Something that gives a common direction for local people and those who have come to live here from somewhere else, for large businesses and small, for youngsters and pensioners. Ambitious, yet reachable. If you think about it, maybe the Scandinavian model isn’t a bad choice? Maybe, for once, we shouldn’t try to invent a new wheel?

Mārtiņš Panke is Executive Director of the Foreign Investors' Council in Latvia (FICIL)

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