The last word: Grasping the chance to lead

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thrust emerging Europe into the spotlight. The region was ready to respond with courage, unity, and leadership, confirmation that the continent’s centre of power is indeed shifting eastwards. Now it is time for the region to grasp this opportunity and lead.  

In December 2021, our team came up with the headline for the fifth Future of Emerging Europe Summit and Awards last year — A region on the cusp. It was about taking the emerging Europe region to a new level after three decades of, in a number of cases, successful transition from a planned to a free-market economy, and from communism to democracy.   

It was about identifying the right path, ceasing to rely on cheap labour, instead focusing on sustainability, entrepreneurship and innovation, not on imitation, and on being able to compete with quality in the global arena.  

The slogan, however, took on a whole new meaning after Russia began dropping the first bombs on Ukraine in February 2022—bombs which are still being dropped almost two years later.  

“We should have listened to those who know Putin,” Ursula von der Leyen said at the European Commission president’s State of the Union speech in mid-September last year. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe had it right all along. Their neighbours to the west got it wrong.  

For the countries in the emerging Europe region, it was another confirmation of their growing role and a reminder that they should not be ignored again. 

Going east 

Asked about how the region has progressed since then, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former UK Foreign Secretary and the Laureate of last year’s Professor Günter Verheugen Award, was effusive in his praise.  

“It’s turned out dramatically better than anything that seemed likely in the 1980s, when these countries were all still part of, or under the influence of, the Soviet Union,” he said during the Summit fireside chat that I hosted. 

“Europe to me in the old days was London, Paris, Rome and Bonn rather than Berlin. Now it’s London, perhaps Berlin with a question mark and Warsaw. Paris and Rome don’t matter that significantly,” Dr Edwin Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, told me in Seoul a few months ago.  

“Imagine a Central and Eastern Europe as it continues to grow, to build upon what it has done over the last 30 years, the rebirth of Europe is going to come from there,” Declan Ganley, the chairman and CEO of Rivada Networks, who was part of that same conversation, added. 

During last year’s Aspen – GMF Bucharest Forum I spoke to Mircea Geoană, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, who repeated several times the notion that Europe’s strategic centre of gravity is moving east.  

“This is not just a simple observation of a strategic nature, but a fact. It must also be an economic, technological and political shift. This new situation in Europe creates conditions for the strategic relevance of the countries on the Eastern Flank. We are moving to a new reality, a reality that we need to take advantage of,” he added 

Grasping the opportunity 

At Emerging Europe, we have been witnessing that emergence for the last decade, during which time the 23 countries in the region have indeed been emerging, or becoming apparent or prominent.  

Some more than others.  

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thrust emerging Europe into the spotlight. The region was ready to respond with courage, unity, and leadership, confirmation that the continent’s centre of power is indeed shifting eastwards. 

Now it is time for the region to grasp this opportunity and lead.  

Next week, at this year’s Future of Emerging Europe Summit and Awards, I will talk about this opportunity and about how emerging Europe is approaching it with Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). The 2023 laureate of the Princess Marina Sturdza Award, Krastev is a tireless advocate for the emerging Europe region, a champion of democracy, rule-of-law, and of civil society’s role in creating open, prosperous countries.   

We are also going to discuss the foundations of the region’s future, one of them being education and how to rethink education for tomorrow’s world. There are numerous questions to answer. How to close the skills gap and stop brain drain from the emerging Europe region? How to create an effective knowledge transfer process from educational institutions to businesses and to enhance business-relevant research and teaching? And what more needs to be done to ensure that education across the region is future-proof and meets market needs and the disruptions caused by technological advancements?  

The region’s advantage 

There has been a lot of discussion about coding and programming being the most essential skills. I disagree. A confluence of advances in biological science and accelerating development of computing, automation, and artificial intelligence is fueling a new skillset that will be required and we will all have to constantly reinvent ourselves, not only upskilling but change professions entirely. 

The region has already proven its technical skills by becoming an IT powerhouse. One session at this year’s Summit will focus on leading through innovation and creating ecosystems in which business and individuals can thrive. 

Earlier this week, I had a prep call with Bettina Ryll, before a fireside chat I will be hosting in Warsaw later this month. A physician by training and with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from University College London, Bettina became a patient advocate after losing her husband to cancer. One of the things she told me was that as far as innovation and reinvention is concerned, the emerging Europe region has a chance to do things its own way without repeating the mistakes made in the West. 

Taking matters in their own hands and taking the lead is what emerging Europe needs to do. How? That is what this year’s Future of Emerging Europe Summit will decipher.

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