Lennart Meri once said: “Politics is a factory producing the future”. The Lennart Meri Conference (LMC) 2019 tried to peep into the future and also, in some context, to shape it.

One thing was pretty obvious from the first hour of the conference: the topic of China is here to stay. Starting with the opening session, in which the presidents of Georgia (Salome Zourabichvili) and Estonia (Kersti Kaljulaid) and the German Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, discussed the implications of China for European security, China featured in practically every panel, from Belarus to the Middle East and from Ukraine to kleptocracy and money laundering. What was probably the most worrying statement was made during the panel “China and the West: Playing Chess with Checkers’ Rules?”: Theresa Fallon (Director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels) noted that Europe doesn’t really have a China strategy, thus making the dynamic of the China-EU relationship chaotic and reactive from the EU side—even more so because China itself seems to have a clear goal but lacks a detailed roadmap.

LMC 2019 concentrated on the future. Thomas Bagger (diplomatic adviser in the office of the president of Germany) noted in the closing session that older generations look at the younger one with a degree of distrust and concern. Participants in the special panel dedicated to the young generation (“The Future Is in Our Hands”) admitted that this distrust was mutual. Misunderstandings start from different definitions of basic terms: if for our generation security problems mean the concentration of Russian troops on its Western border or China’s military activity in the South China Sea, then for 25-year-olds security can be defined first and foremost by the environment, energy or digital hygiene. We should make an extra effort to learn to listen to each other and understand the rhetoric of those who will be running things in the next 10–15 years and will create new visions and narratives.

Just a week before elections to the European Parliament, the conference naturally concentrated on populism, nationalism, growing frustration and the power of the word. Discussion in the session “The Siren Calls of Populism: The Roots of Frustration at the Dawn of the EP Elections” became very lively, touching on core values and their cost, bringing Jesus into the conversation and speculating what he would have thought of migration and open borders. As a takeaway, the need to be able to listen to each other was noted.

Of course, many questions were asked—either on the conference stage or in the margins—about the political situation in Estonia. Participants came to Tallinn to understand the situation from a primary source and without filters. Worried faces were common, and the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Carl Bildt, wrote in his blog that time would tell whether the Estonian political agenda is going to change substantially and, if so, in what direction.

The LMC could not happen without a panel dedicated to NATO. The discussion about the 2% commitment was heated and lively, with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the Bundestag, noting that the pressure on Germany comes straight from Donald Trump, so it’s highly unlikely to win political support.

In many panels, participants had to admit that the boundaries between traditional civil society and security policy issues are becoming more and more blurred. Be it money laundering, energy choices, renewables or social media, it’s hard to draw clear-cut lines. But one thing is certain: many topics that were on the table of this LMC will be there next year too. LMC 2020 will take place on 15–17 May in Tallinn.

ICDS and the Lennart Meri European Foundation organise the annual Lennart Meri Conference to acknowledge president Meri’s continuing legacy in foreign- and security-policy thinking. It aims to encourage curiosity and debate, highlight unity and diversity, and foster liberty and democracy. Every year since 2007 it has brought together in Tallinn around 500 distinguished policymakers, analysts, politicians, military personnel and thought leaders from around the globe.

Partners and supporters of LMC 2019 were the Estonian Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Government Office, and NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, Swedbank, Alexela Group, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Kongsberg Group, Saab, Silberauto and its CEO Väino Kaldoja, the US government, the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation, Milrem Robotics, BAE Systems and the European Commission. Elering is an ICDS research partner.