Seventeen years ago (yikes!) I wrote a long story about one of the most fascinating stories in the Baltic region, one that I had followed since the fall of the Baltic Curtain in 1991: the rapprochement of Finland and Estonia. You can find that piece elsewhere on this site. This summer, during my most recent tour of the region I decided to revisit the story, and the two (still) enthusiastic EU members, within the context of the new cloud over the European project. Here is what I found:
Did anyone say that EU is dying? With Britain’s shock vote in June to depart EU, and the principle of cross-border cooperation and free movement of people under fire elsewhere on the Continent, this might well seem to be the case.
But that’s not the way it looks when one zooms in on EU’s northwestern corner in the eastern Baltic. Witness Thus the frenetic scene which takes place every day at Helsinki’s gargantuan western ferry terminal. Several times a day, the vast structure is flooded with thousands of Finns lining up to board the fleet of “slow boats” or cruise ships, and “fast” hydrofoils bound for Tallinn, fifty miles away, across the Gulf of Finland. Intermingled with the Finns, are the increasing number of Estonians—now numbering over 100,000, nearly 10% of Estonia’s population—who work in Helsinki and commute between the two capitals.
A mirror version of this maritime rite takes place in Tallinn harbor, as masses of Estonians and Finns undertake the reverse passage on one of the “fast” boats, which make the crossing in one hour and forty minutes, or their “slower,” hulking sisters, which take an hour or so longer.
All told, eight million passengers, mostly Finns and Estonians, cross the busy seaway by ferry every year, more than the two EU members’ combined population. Someday, in the not too distant future, if planners in this bustling cross-border region have their way, those numbers will be even higher thanks to a proposed railway tunnel linking both ends of “Talsinksi,” as some call the merged metropolitan area.
In the meantime, both the Finnish and Estonian economies and governments continue to coalesce in new and different ways, including digitally. As Arno Linethan, the former first secretary at the Estonian embassy in Helsinki put it, “a rainbow has formed between our two countries, and every year that rainbow grows wider and takes on new bands.”
“It’s quite exciting,” says Kirsti Narinen, Finnish ambassador to Tallinn, referring to the evolution of the Finnish-Estonian relationship. “We don’t make a lot of noise about it, but the two countries are virtually integrated,” says the veteran diplomat, who has witnessed the relationship grow and evolve since her first posting to Tallinn in 1993, where she served five years as deputy head of mission.
“It’s almost as if what is happening with Britain and Brexit is happening in another world,” says Narinen, who considers EU’s northeastern corner EU’s “strongest redoubt,” with the expanding Finnish-Estonian “rainbow” one of its showpieces.
“Finns and Estonians commute to work, study, shop, use public and commercial services and visit each other’s countries as if they were travelling around the same country rather than travelling abroad,” declares Gunnar Okk, the former CEO of Estonian Energy, the national utility. For anyone who recalls what things were like twenty five years ago, when the two countries were separated by the Iron Curtain, that is fairly astounding.
“Common membership in the EU has definitely fostered cooperation between the two countries in very practical ways,” adds Okk, now vice president of Nordic Investment Bank. Just last month, the prominent financier notes, the European Commission allocated over $200 million—approximately two thirds of the cost—of BalticConnector, an undersea Finland-Estonia gas pipeline. Another bilateral project which has received EU funding is the long-range joint Finnish-Estonian environmental project to clean up the noxious toxic waste the Russians left behind at their former nuclear submarine base in Paldiski. At the same time, Okk points out, “these seeds were sown in very fertile ground by dint of the existing similarities between the two.”
To be sure, Finland and Estonia have a lot more in common than Britain and France. Both Finnish and Estonian are members of the Fenno-Ugric language group. Most Finns can understand Estonian, at least somewhat, even if they don’t speak it, and vice versa. The two countries also have a shared political history. Both were provinces of imperial Russia, before declaring their independence after the Russian Revolution. The lower three “Balts”—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were resubjugated by the USSR in 1944, before the three re-emerged into the bright light of freedom in 1991, when Finns and Estonians also began rebonding.
Hannele Valkeenimiei, the press and cultural counselor at the Finnish Embassy in Tallinn, waxes lyrical about this “tale of two countries,” as the Finnish-Estonian rapprochement has been called. “I see the two countries as two branches of the same tree which lies at the bottom of the Baltic, with the Finnish branch ‘growing up’ on the northern coast, and the Estonian branch shooting up in the southern.”
That inspiring tale has taken some twists and turns over the past quarter century. Sentimentally, Finland and Estonia were perhaps closest during the 1990s when, “the Finnish government, individuals, families, churches—everybody really–was helping training the Estonian military, police and border guards and helping Estonia become the state it is today,” as Ambassador Narinen fondly recalls. At the same time, scores of Finnish businesses established branches in Estonia or otherwise invested in its economy, helping the “Baltic tiger” to soar.
Some of the mutual good feeling was doused by the invasion of Finns who subsequently sped over to Tallinn in order to purchase alcohol at lower Estonian prices, often consuming their purchases on site, before lurching back to their ferries, while leaving their less than thrilled hosts to clean up after them.
Still, relations remained close through 2004, when, partly thanks to Helsinki’s exertions, Estonia joined EU, along with Latvia and Lithuania. At the same time the foreign policy paths of the two countries, both of which border Russia diverged when Estonia decided to join NATO, angering Moscow, while Finland opted to become a NATO partner.
Meanwhile, though it continued to welcome Finnish aid, expertise and investment, Estonia decided not to adopt certain features of Finnish social democracy, particularly its high taxation rate. Aku Sorainen, a Finnish attorney who moved to Tallinn in 1995, believes this was for the better.
“Because of the bridge between the countries, Estonians were able to start from a ‘clean desk’ and copy many best practices from Finland,” says Sorainen. “However it did not take over the heavy tax and social security system, or its powerful labor unions,” says Sorainen, whose firm has since grown into a regional legal powerhouse.
“The Estonian tax system, which is based on a flat tax, is much clearer and easier managed than the Finnish one.” “I don’t think that Finnish officials would like to take over the Estonian system,” he adds, drily, “since that would make many of them redundant.”
“Of course there are differences between us,” says Ambassador Narinen, “Nevertheless that does not take away from the other, very real ties, particularly the economic ones that bind us and the fact that we are fusing into a greater trans-Baltic whole under the umbrella of EU.”
Officials on both sides of the gulf are particularly excited about the newest, digital band of the “rainbow”, the so-called X-road linking the two governments’ data bases. “So far digital government has stopped at physical borders,” says Siim Sikkut, the Estonian prime minister’s top digital advisor. “Everywhere if you go to do business or live or work in another country, there is lots of paperwork. We are trying to eliminate that by connecting the digital governmental systems of Estonia and Finland.” Sikkut also notes that the Estonia-Finland X-road collaboration is unique in that it is the first cross-border initiative for ‘whole of government’ data exchange that would be permanent, as well, as hopefully, a model for the rest of EU.
Most agree that the proposed railway tunnel linking the two cities, once a pipedream, now a subject of intense study and discussion, is also exciting. “It would be really great to have the tunnel one day,” says Sorainen. It certainly is doable, he says, pointing to the 50 mile long tunnel bringing drinking water from Lake Paijanne in northern Finland to Helsinki as an engineering precedent.
Jasmin Etelamaki, advisor to the city of Helsinki, which is looking for further ways to meld the adjoining capitals says that the travel time between Helsinki and Tallinn “is too long for a functional city region.” She adds, “One of the principal rationales for the tunnel idea is to bring more inhabitants to the region, and that will not happen until travel time is shorter.”
Others, like Gunnar Okk, demur at the tunnel’s estimated $10-$15 billion dollar cost. “It makes no economic sense to execute such a project,” he says, pointing out that “even on a daily basis there are eighteen departures by different ships and vessels and seven plane crossings. What is more a project of this magnitude would require an investment comparable to that needed to build a nuclear power plant with very long payback time.”
The debate over the tunnel continues. In the meantime both governments have agreed to a pre-feasibility study for the project. Significantly, the study is being underwritten by EU. Little wonder that Ambassador Narinen calls this neck of Europe “EU’s strongest redoubt.”