We Estonians only think we know Finland, but it would pay to look beyond the tourists
“Just admit that you have an addiction,” said a good friend to me at an official event a few weeks ago. As we all know, addiction is not an easy partner or guide. You will always find an excuse to be connected to the object of your desire—in time it becomes draining, makes you into an object of ridicule or, even, leads to bankruptcy. Some are addicted to strong spirits, others to golf. My addiction is Finland—to be precise, the future of the Estonian and Finnish joint economic area. This diagnosis helped me realise my own subjectivity and limitations.
Estonia and Finland have been described as two branches of the same tree—perhaps it is indeed so. Nevertheless, it is useful to be aware of what is happening on the branch next to you.
Finland is at the top of almost all global scoreboards and is, among other things, the most secure and stable country. Estonia, too, has its share of good rankings; this mutual economic contest can also be expressed in numbers.
Finland’s national budget in 2017 was 55.2 billion euro, Estonia’s 9.48 billion. Finland’s (expected) GDP in 2016 was 214 billion euro; Estonia’s was 21 billion. Finland’s population is 5.49 million, Estonia’s 1.33 million.
In 2016, Finland’s publicly traded companies decided to distribute 11.5 billion euros in dividends to their shareholders. This last number is particularly telling, as it is bigger than Estonia’s national budget.
Nevertheless, as Estonians, we should not feel small next to Finland—we are simply different. It is important to understand what is happening around us, and analyse and interpret it, according to its context.
The northern neighbour’s economy is growing; the automotive industry and shipbuilding are enjoying smooth sailing, which also provides a lot of work for Estonian companies. Businesses in south-west Finland have 25 billion euro-worth of orders, but not enough people to fulfil them. Finland has managed to attract international research and development centres, such as Rolls-Royce self-driving ships or IBM Watson healthcare solutions centres. Bio, circular and platform economy, in addition to Sote-uutistus (a healthcare system update), are the terms heard in almost every conference talk in Finland. Large enterprises have discovered the value of the start-up way of thinking; various fields of activity are becoming intertwined.
The global reach of the Finnish economy is impressive, but something is stopping Estonians from noticing, accepting it and moving along. We call today’s economic cooperation “strategic”, but it’s an illusion. Finland is not dependent on us, and I guess we can manage on our own as well.
Perhaps the secret code is hidden in the introduction to Jüri Reinvere’s article “Soome on eestlastele tundmatu maa” (Finland is Terra Incognita to Estonians), published in the newspaper Sirp on 1 December 2017: “As funny as it may seem, Finns and Estonians essentially do not understand each other at all, even though both think they do”.
Anu Realo, a professor at the University of Tartu and associate professor at the University of Warwick, says the results of a values survey show that material values take priority in Estonia. In the Nordic states, people are more worried about the protection of freedom of speech or about whether people have enough opportunities to participate in important national issues. This could be the reason Estonians’ cooperation with, say, their northern neighbours is good in certain professional networks, yet there is little cross-sectoral joint planning for the future.
Ensio Miettinen, founder of the Finnish electrical solutions company Ensto, points out the importance of trust capital and compares trust to physical capital in his books. In a trusting environment, sharing ideas and warning about possible risks and dangers comes naturally.
Trust is the first and most important rule of human communication, and it is the key influence on people’s positive or negative choices and behaviour.
The Finnish Bridge and Tunnel: Global Joint Economic Possibilities for Finland and Estonia
The Finnish “bridge” has connected Estonian and Finnish souls for nearly 150 years, ever since Lydia Koidula used that metaphor in several of her poems. Seppo Zetterberg’s Rändajad Soome sillal (Travellers on the Finnish Bridge) was recently published in Estonian, and is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the history of Finnish-Estonian cooperation or any person with career ambitions. Similarly, we can add to the compulsory reading list Kulle Raig’s Pikk teekond lähedale (Long Journey Nearby), which describes Estonia and Finland’s rediscovery of each other and Estonia’s regaining of independence from Finland’s point of view.
According to current rhetoric, the construction of Rail Baltic does not depend on the tunnel and vice versa. Nevertheless, once Finland’s Arctic Railway is complete, everything will likely become a single whole.
It is fun to observe the clamour around Helsinki’s recently opened subway line. The line connects Helsinki and Espoo in a new way, creating wider possibilities for residential construction, university students and businesses in general. In spite of this—or perhaps because the project’s launch was 15 months late—the topic received wide coverage in the Finnish media. On the opening weekend, people came to ride the subway with the same enthusiasm as when they flocked to take a ride on Finland’s first escalator, installed in the Stockmann shopping centre almost 90 years ago. It also needs to be said that in the case of the subway, we are really talking about an extension of the line, not a unique new phenomenon. If even Länsimetro got such attention, what about a joint project between two countries?
In spite of the Finns’ opinion that Finland is an island and Estonia is a little more in Europe, they will not build a tunnel without our help. Even more important than the tunnel is the feeling, attitude, will and belief that the Gulf of Finland area is viable and the world’s best place to be.
We must decide for ourselves what we want, and contribute accordingly. Nobody is interested in us unless we are active ourselves. It is easier with Finns; Tallinn and Helsinki form an interesting area together. As separate cities they are not important enough, not even in the Baltic Sea region.
However, what is the true potential of the Gulf of Finland economic area? Synergy is created when people begin to understand that, in the case of Finland and Estonia, it does not matter how much someone works somewhere or how many companies there are, and realise that the mutual exchange of goods alone is really nothing more than moving money from one pocket to another. Investors, exporters and tourists are actually elsewhere. For Estonia, Finland is not just Finland—what matters most is what we can accomplish in the world, and the ways in which we can we invite the rest of the world to this area.
In the coming years, Helsinki-Vantaa Airport is planning to invest 900 million euros, taking the estimated number of passengers each year to 19 million, and the 30 million line will be hopefully crossed by 2030. How will that influence Estonia’s logistics and tourism sector, and what are the opportunities?
No means of transport is a competitor if we manage to increase the number of travellers between Tallinn and Helsinki from 10 to 20 million. In summer, ferry traffic should be even greater, thanks to the increasing number of tourists from Asia.
Finland and Estonia have very good education systems; the results of PISA tests even put Estonia ahead of its northern neighbour. Finns look at us approvingly, and that is bound to increase interest and create an opportunity to learn each other’s methods.
Thanks to the new Universities Act, Finland can now offer paid education and the plans are big. Finland is planning to draw in 150,000 international students, some of whom are bound to move on to Estonia. People in charge of recruiting new students for Estonian universities should also keep an eye on these developments.
Education is a topic that touches everybody. As a positive example, scientists and students from the universities of Tartu and Aalto are cooperating in the field of satellite construction. Joint summer courses are being organised. Personal contacts are the key.
Francis Fukuyama has claimed that the future belongs to those economic areas whose inhabitants have a high level of social trust—or, in other words, plenty of social capital. Trust and networks go hand in hand.
How to create networks, or use pre-existing ones? How should we organise things so that a wonderful speech by Estonia’s high representative is heard by those whose task it is to develop exports and involve foreign investors, in addition to the Finnish-Swedish business elite? We should think about bringing together the right contacts, culture, economy and civil society.
In early summer, the prime ministers of Finland and Estonia celebrated the 100th anniversary of both countries by playing football with employees of Estonia’s and Finland’s government offices in Tallinn. In addition, a seminar for entrepreneurs took place, the results of which were passed to government heads. One of the main proposals was the creation of a working group of experts and policymakers. This would allow us to share the best practices of both countries (FinEst—“best of both”) and develop specific cooperation in the areas of regulation, processes, image development, innovation and education.
Before the autumn elections, the Finnish-Estonian Chamber of Commerce (FECC) organised a debate for Tallinn’s mayoral candidates. They were asked about the international Tallinn of the future, and how entrepreneurs could influence it. The debate also focused on regional cooperation and attracting talent (back) to Estonia. A small miracle occurred—instead of putting each other down, people talked about Finnish-Estonian cooperation. Each competitor had his or her own story about Finland; everyone saw Tallinn and Helsinki as a joint metropolis of the future.
On the public-sector level, quite a few things have taken place between Estonia and Finland in 2017. On 7–8 March, Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia, made a state visit to Finland. A state visit is the highest level of communication between two countries, and this certainly demonstrated Finland’s importance to Estonia.
For the joint development of X-road/Palveluväylä (the data-exchange layer for information systems) and cross-border e-services, an Estonian-Finnish non-profit called MTÜ Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) was launched. NIIS is both a network and a cooperation platform that focuses on practical cooperation, sharing experiences and promoting innovation. Fingers crossed.
Estonia’s EU presidency ends on 31 December 2017; Finland’s is in the second half of 2019. Estonian organisers will be able to share their experiences and invite participants to visit the twin city.
As cooperation between Tornio and Haparanda and Copenhagen and Malmö has shown, major decisions and mental breakthroughs require a big problem or push. For Tornio–Haparanda, it was the location of an IKEA store. What would fulfil that task for Tallinn and Helsinki?
The results of the tunnel’s feasibility study should be ready in early 2018; Helsinki is developing a new strategy, companies have made an offer for trilateral cooperation, and the economy is growing. This is an opportune moment for the creation of an open platform, where the best could meet and exchange experience.
You do not need identical norms or exactly the same values for cooperation to work—it is important to know the differences, and the other party’s manners and traditions. Once we know these, they can be taken into account and understood; otherwise there can be no trust, let alone networks and social capital.
Close and regular contact between people is the basis for everything. Looking back, we can see that northern Estonia and southern Finland have been trading goods (seprakauppa) for over 700 years. Finnish fish was traded for Estonian grain—this is how cooperation worked and trust was created over centuries.
The Finnish-Estonian relationship is unique, and it is a good basis for even closer cooperation. However, nothing is born out of thin air—it all takes time. Elias Lönnrot, a physician by trade, but also the founding member of the Finnish Literature Society, spent several months studying the South Estonian dialect and rural life in the summer and autumn of 1884. Only by working in depth can we build a new kind of Finnish bridge, which appeals not only to our kin nations but also to people from afar.
On 1 December 1937, a cultural treaty was signed between Finland and Estonia, despite the less-than-sunny political relations between the countries at the time. Kinfolk activism and cultural relations were stronger. Similar tenacity was displayed by Gunnar Okk and Jaakko Blomberg, under whose leadership the Finnish-Estonian Cultural Foundation was established earlier this year. It is highly symbolic that the foundation’s first scholarship was issued at a conference marking the 80th anniversary of the cultural treaty.
Reinvere draws some conclusions in the aforementioned article in Sirp: “It pays to know Finland well—we need to do this. This is not an easy thing to do, since first we must erase tourists from our imagination and respect the fact that, as a person, a Finn is hard to get.”
One group of people bound to know Finland well is the 100 Estonians who translated Ilkka Taipale’s 100 sosiaalista innovaatiota Suomesta (100 Social Innovations from Finland) into Estonian as part of a joint effort. A deep bow to Ambassador Mart Tarmak, the author and realiser of the entire project. In addition to producing a book, the project created a network that is bound to have a life of its own. This is exactly what we need—first networks, then teams, which will be followed by projects at the right moment.
Neighbouring states on both shores of the Gulf of Finland are celebrating their centenaries. Finns are constantly amazed by the fact that Estonians take Finland’s anniversary at least as seriously as Finns themselves. In fact, Finns are worried whether they can even return the favour.
Neighbours do not have to outdo each other; it is better simply to send the other congratulations and wishes for good health and a long life.
So, cheers, Finland!
A Vision of Finnish-Estonian Economic Relations in 2117
In 2117, the Finnish-Estonian economic area, or FinEst Bay Area, is a natural part of the transport corridor from Asia to Europe. Finland and Estonia are connected both virtually and physically. Various means of transport have been used in the tunnels over time; even better solutions are sought for moving between the Helsinki-Vantaa and Tallinn’s Lennart Meri terminals that form part of Talsinki Airport.
Autonomous cargo vessels sail the Gulf of Finland; cruise ships function as office buildings in addition to transporting passengers. Thirty-four million trips between Estonia and Finland are made each year, half of these by travellers from further afield.
The mayors of Tallinn and Helsinki are aided by a joint council, the chairman of which has the title of Governor of Talsinki.
Finland and Estonia both still have their own governments, but officials are in close cooperation with the FinEst Think Tank, established 99 years ago. The think tank keeps up with the times—experienced entrepreneurs, the young, cultural activists and representatives of civil society work together to create innovative, boundless solutions. Every challenge is an opportunity. The area is to be the world’s best and most prominent place for innovation, development and testing.
How did this come to pass?
After the jubilee years of Finland’s and Estonia’s centenaries, Estonia-Finland 200 events and Estonia’s EU presidency, both countries had sufficient confidence and will to appreciate the true meaning behind the economic relations and cooperation between the fellow nations. They understood that the key to success lay largely in cooperation networks—both in official and unofficial contacts formed between regional companies. Company managers, who once used to compete, began exchanging information and solutions to relevant problems. Such a development facilitated the creation of personal contacts and networks. They understood that the key factor was the free movement of ideas and innovation; various networks were partially intertwined. The meaning of cooperation became clear as soon as people understood that well-being could be achieved with an open mind, trust and mutual support. Together.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.