Estonia will be the only European Union member not represented at Japan's 2025 World EXPO. Politicians are split over the decision made by Minister of Economic Affairs and IT Tiit Riisalo (Estonia 200) to withdraw due to high costs and want the government to further discuss the issue.
Riisalo told Japanese Ambassador Yukihiko Matsumura on May 9 that Estonia will not participate in the global event. The main reason is money.
"First and foremost, we had to take into account the decision of the new Estonian government to decisively reduce state budget expenditure," the minister wrote.
He told ERR participation in the event will cost between €3-4 million.
"These costs are disproportionately high," Riisalo said, suggesting instead that Estonia should share its pavilion with Latvia and Lithuania.
"We will not be able to make any additional requests in next year's budget. This means that the money would have to be found from other activities," the minister said.
But not everyone agrees. The issue was discussed by the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee last week where it was decided that the minister should raise the issue with the government
"World exhibitions are extremely important events for the organizing country," said committee chairman Marko Mihkelson (Reform). "And we have a very important strategic trade relationship with Japan, which has, among other things, developed very vigorously and rapidly in recent years."
World EXPOs are one of the oldest and largest international events in the world, taking place every five years and lasting six months.
Is the EXPO a benefit or an unnecessary expense?
"For example, if we take into account the figures that the Enterprise Estonia (EAS) representative quoted, participation in the Osaka World EXPO would potentially generate around €700 million of additional investment over the next 7-10 years. And if we do not participate, this growth figure could be much lower," said Mihkelson.
But Riisalo is not convinced.
"This is a hypothesis," he said, when asked about the figure. "Of course, we are working to attract investment. And where exactly it will come from will become clear in the course of our work."
Japan is not in Estonia's TOP 10 trading partners, the minister said.
"If we look at where it would make sense for a business diplomacy effort to be invested in such a way that it would actually have an impact on Estonia's macro numbers, it is first and foremost in the TOP 10 of our trading partners and they are much closer and we have a lot to do there," said Riisalo.
Other large and important events usually cost Estonia between €150,000 to €200,000, he said, adding not all of them are worth the money.
Minister: EXPO is no longer what it used to be
Mihkelson argued that the EXPO is not an ordinary trade fair and 153 countries will participate — including every other EU member.
"Estonia is not such a big a country that we have the luxury of giving up events like the World Expo," Mihkelson said. "After all, we don't think before the Olympics whether we will participate in the Olympics or not, even though there might not be any medal chances."
But Riisalo said he would not draw comparisons between EXPO and the Olympics. He said, due to its long planning time, the exhibition lags behind the times.
"This kind of gathering of the nations of the world and showing off their best, this kind of diplomatic communication is starting to take a back seat," Riisalo said.
However, he did admit it may not increase relations between Estonia and Japan.
"But I wouldn't dare to think that it will now have a very significant impact on these relations," Riisalo added, highlighting that he has also arranged a meeting with the Japanese ambassador.
Former minister promised Estonia would participate
"If the Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out that this matter could be discussed further, I have no objection," Riisalo said.
"We have prepared a memorandum for a cabinet meeting of the government, and in the near future we will pick up the issue again."
Should the government come to a different opinion, the Japanese ambassador will receive their third letter from Estonia regarding the EXPO.
Former Minister of Economic Affairs and IT Andres Sutt (Reform), previously said Estonia would participate in the event in 2021.
"Estonia could be consistent in its decision," said Mihkelson, referring to Sutt's decision.
"And, in fact, a decision could be made in principle that Estonia will participate in world exhibitions regardless of where they are taking place," he added.
The MP said discussions on a similar theme have been held before, especially in relation to the last EXPO in Dubai.
"When there was still a great deal of confusion, we were told quite unequivocally that if Estonia does not participate in the Dubai EXPO, then, for the next few years, we should forget about the fact that our companies can easily find markets or contracts here," Mihkelson said, describing the foreign policy dimension of the discussions at the time.
Domestic audience expected at Osaka
But Riisalo does not think a decision about all future EXPOs should be made now.
"It would be worth taking a look at the conditions of each World EXPO and deciding whether or not it makes sense to go, based on the conditions," said the minister.
He also highlighted the 2021 Shanghai EXPO, when he was part of Estonia's organizing team.
"It was a time of great opening up for China and we all hoped that if the market economy progressed there, democratization would take place and China would become a friendly member of the international community," Riisalo said. "Unfortunately, these expectations did not materialize."
"The next EXPO took place in Milan. I'm not sure if what was hoped for was achieved," the minister said, adding there was little interest in the event.
But Dubai was a different story.
"It worked more like a hub. Around 80 percent of visitors came from outside the venue and it had a more global reach. Japan's forecasts are, unfortunately, the opposite. It is clearly oriented towards the Japanese domestic audience and it is certainly not promoting the interests of business diplomacy in this way," said Riisalo.
Editor: Urmet Kook, Helen Wright