Berth Sundström: Removing border obstacles between neighbours brings (and keeps) people together

Tuesday, 11 March 2014
Berth Sundström, Director of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia. Photo: private collection Berth Sundström, Director of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Estonia. Photo: private collection

A few months ago I visited Pärnu, and talking to some of the decision-makers in the county I gained an overview of the positive economic outlook in the region: the Lottemaa theme park is being built, and a number of foreign industrial companies have shown interest in setting up in the area. The biggest and ultimately decisive problem for companies looking to establish themselves, however, is the lack of labour. I came across the same problem a little later when visiting Valga, where the lack of skilled labourers has become a real issue.

At first glance, the problem can come as something of a surprise to foreigners who've relocated to Estonia: leaving aside the years of recession, the country's development has been on a constant upward curve. Those who visit the country from time to time cannot fail to notice the rapid progress evidenced by improving infrastructure and new construction. Part of the success story of the economy is based on the fact that Estonia has had a competitive labour force in the industrial sector, as salaries have been lower than in e.g. Finland and Sweden and taxes have been generally favourable for companies. But Estonia now finds itself in a place where we're forced to ask ourselves: "Where next?" Salaries and taxes remain relatively competitive, but that's as maybe if you can't find people to work for you.

A considerable proportion of the work force has emigrated. Thanks to its physical and cultural proximity, but also to its higher standard of living, Finland has been the principal beneficiary here. In recent years quite a few lessons have been learnt from the brisk movement between the countries, with most people regarding it as being of benefit to both sides, even if the migration flow is overwhelmingly from south to north. Around 50,000 Estonians permanently reside in Finland at present, and when you add in goods, services and capital, the overall picture looks positive.

Looking further ahead, however, it's crucial that Estonia achieve balance in its migration flows. The figures in the latest population forecast have set the alarm bells ringing: if migration trends don't change, Estonia's population will decline by 125,000 by 2040. Then there are the challenges posed by an aging population – a problem that Europe as a whole is facing.

Such dynamic commuting is not characteristic of Estonia and Finland alone, nor is moving from Estonia to Finland to live and work unusual in today's open world. 278,150 Nordic citizens live in another Nordic country at present, whether that be Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Iceland. Last year more than 58,000 people moved from one Nordic country to another – the majority from Sweden to Norway. Around 70,000 people commute from one country to another every day in the Nordic region.

As such, crossing borders to live and/or work in another country has become the day-to-day reality for many Northern Europeans. What's interesting here is that although free movement across borders and a common market have been considered the success story of the Nordic countries for more than 50 years (and to this day remain something of a dream in the European Union), a number of problems are still hampering movement.

In response, the ministers for Nordic cooperation from the Nordic countries have decided to establish a 'border obstacle council' with the aim of eliminating such obstacles and fostering joint action between countries to implement new rules and laws so that these changes do not lead to new problems for ordinary people. The council will also be charged with the task of further developing and increasing the efficiency of freedom of movement information points in the region.

Looking at Estonia from the Nordic-Baltic perspective, it is faced with a number of opportunities, but also a number of challenges. The problem of competitiveness in the country is much broader than mere taxation issues and labour costs. Competition among qualified workers is becoming increasingly fierce. Since old truths no longer hold water, it's time for us to look to the future and find solutions to the problems that lie ahead.

True, education is of key importance – more specifically vocational education and life-long learning programmes, to which the Nordic countries are making a significant contribution; but this in itself is a separate and complex issue. Openness is another option, as is cooperating with your neighbours, thereby creating a sense of belonging and togetherness in the Baltic Sea region.

Self-development through studies, travelling and working abroad is a normal part of people's lives these days, but 'abroad' does not necessarily have to mean Australia or the United States. Knowing that development is not only possible but actively promoted in neighbouring countries creates a competitive advantage for your own country, and also makes returning to your homeland easier, in terms of both distance and culture. We share our valuable resources, human and otherwise. The experience of the Nordic countries shows that such people have few if any problems adapting in a society that's already fairly familiar to them.

KCould Estonia and the other Baltic States make the most of the lessons learnt from Nordic cooperation here? It's true to say that although migration flows in the Nordic region have varied from one decade to the next since World War II, the countries involved have benefitted enormously from cross-border cooperation. It hasn't been easy, but the obstacles that have been identified and resolved through law have all contributed to the strengthening of the region. It's also led to the establishment of official and unofficial cooperation networks in both the public and private sectors. The fact that the Nordic countries – and Sweden in particular, with its especially liberal migration policy – have enjoyed economic success is widely known. These countries, with their combined population of 25 million, are collectively among the top ten economies in the world.

Is now the right time for the Baltic States to boost cooperation in the region to remove border obstacles, to identify the most pressing issues and to then knowingly work towards dealing with them? This would require, as it did in the Nordic countries, informing citizens of their rights and the opportunities that are open to them. Membership of the European Union and the principles of free movement generate possibilities, but as in the Nordic region, the crossing of borders needs to be managed and made more efficient in a smaller circle so that it becomes a competitive advantage.

In the longer term, cooperation between the Baltic States to remove border obstacles could be transformed into the best example of Nordic-Baltic cooperation. In the future, such activities could strengthen the entire Nordic-Baltic region and the European market.

It's important to the Nordic Council of Ministers to work together to deal with the challenges facing Estonia and the other Baltic States so as to foster free movement in the region. This is also one of the reasons we launched a migration-themed project last year, which we will be focussing on this Friday at a high-level conference at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn entitled 'Labour migration and transnationalism in the Nordic-Baltic Region'. Bearing in mind the gloomy population forecast for Estonia, we have no alternative than to roll up our sleeves and get down to work. Limiting the free movement and free choice of citizens is no solution to this problem.

As such, we have to promote even closer and more effective cooperation, primarily between the Baltic States, so as to reinforce the free market and movement in the local region first and foremost, then in the Nordic-Baltic region more broadly and finally in the European Union as a whole.

The opinion article by Berth Sundström, director of the Nordic Council of Ministers' Office in Estonia was published by the Estonian daily Postimees on March 10, 2014.


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Kertu Kärk

Communications adviser

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