Guest pen Estonians need to be able to meet their families

Estonians working in Finland cannot travel from one country to another without the threat of losing their job. It is neither reasonable nor in line with EU rules, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas writes in an open letter to Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

Dear Sanna,

I am worried. I have told you about my concerns before – in Summer Beach, Porto, Brussels and also in our calls. Good friends and neighbors can tell each other everything, joys and worries. I hope you have time to listen.

We are both prime ministers and lucky we do not have to make choices between two important things – work and family. That’s the way it has to be. No person should have to choose what they consider more important, their family or their job. At the end of January, however, thousands of Estonians with families in Estonia and a job in Finland were forced to make such a choice. Most of them had to choose their job in Finland to ensure their family’s livelihood.

It is now four and a half months from that moment. These Estonians are involved in building Finland, taking care of Finland, cleaning Finland, investing in Finnish well-being with their hands and thoughts. And for four and a half months now, children in thousands of Estonian homes have missed their fathers and mothers and hoped they would come home for the weekend. Sad, as the wait from week to week has been in vain, and there is no end to the longing. Mr Sanna, such a situation should not be true in the European Union of the 21st century. Four and a half months in the life of a small child is equal to eternity.

Estonia, Finland and the whole world have lived through difficult times. Just as we as humans have struggled to meet the ever-changing challenges of work and family life during a coronavirus pandemic, Estonia and Finland have had to compromise and balance health care and economic interests – how to manage the effects of the pandemic but keep our economies afloat.

All indications are that the worst crisis is receding. The majority of the elderly and at-risk population in Finland has been vaccinated against the virus, and Estonia no longer has a long way to go to reach the same level. In Estonia, last week’s infection rate is 72 and the rate of decline is accelerating. Summer has arrived and brought new hope. The crisis caused by the virus is lagging behind, and it is time to give a new impetus to the economy.

Good Sanna, I ask that together we reach a solution where Estonians working in Finland can visit their home country. Traveling by plane is only possible for the wealthy and a few: scheduled flights between Tallinn and Helsinki can accommodate a hundred times fewer passengers than car ferries. I think you will agree with me that meeting a family on the other side of the bay should not depend on earnings, which is the situation at the moment. Favoring air transport is also not environmentally friendly or in line with the principles of green choices.

We should also not forget that Estonia and Finland are both coastal states. A significant part of Finnish trade takes place by sea and a large part of it passes through Estonia. Keeping the gates of shipping open is an economic issue, but also a strategic one – for both of us. Trucks cannot be loaded onto an aircraft.

Relations between businesses have also broken down. We should allow entrepreneurs to meet again so that they can reflect together on their future actions, draw up their plans, develop their relationships and discuss important issues face-to-face, not through different channels of communication. You will probably agree with me that the future development of our economies depends on such meetings.

Estonia has made various proposals since the end of January to reopen commuting in a way that would not have a negative impact on both countries’ healthcare systems. As of the end of February, no passengers without a certificate of negative coronavirus testing have been allowed on board.

On the other hand, you and I sit at the table with our EU colleagues every month and discuss how we can ensure the free movement of people in the circumstances dictated by the pandemic. We in Europe have agreed that restrictions must be proportionate and, if necessary, we will put in place confidence measures, such as the requirement for a test or vaccination certificate. The fact that Estonians working in Finland cannot travel from one country to another without the risk of losing their job is not reasonable and is also in conflict with EU rules. It is also no longer justified when looking at infection and vaccination figures.

It is less than a hundred kilometers between the northern coast of Estonia and the southern coast of Finland. When commuting becomes operational again, we will next try to find a way for Estonian tourists to support the Finnish economy with their shopping in Helsinki, as well as Finnish tourists in Tallinn to support the Estonian economy. And, of course, elsewhere than in the capitals, including Porvoo and Saaremaa, Tampere and Haapsalu, and many other places. According to the Estonian Center for Economic Development, in 2019 Estonian tourists made 634,000 trips to Finland. If, for example, vaccinated people were to be able to travel between two countries again, that would be in the interests of us all.

As developers of digital services, Estonia and Finland represent world-class excellence. Our border could be the place where the digital certificate of vaccinated people would ensure the rapid crossing of the border by people who have been found healthy.

Sanna good, we don’t have time to waste. Thousands of families have been waiting a long time, and it must be possible to accelerate the economic recovery in both countries.

The author is the Prime Minister of Estonia.

The guest pens are the speeches of experts selected by the HS editorial board for publication. The opinions expressed in guest pens are the authors’ own views, not HS’s statements. Writing instructions: www.hs.fi/vieraskyna/.

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