March 25, 2020

The Closure of Talsinki

TASS/Scanpix
A ferry of the Tallink Silja Line (back) by a wharf at the Port of Helsinki.
A ferry of the Tallink Silja Line (back) by a wharf at the Port of Helsinki.

In Southern Europe, the EU seems to be getting a lot of attention in the context of the coronavirus crisis. Italy has been decrying the lack of European solidarity and French president Emmanuel Macron has made strong appeals for more of it. Following the debates in the north-eastern corner of Europe, one rather gets the impression that people are forgetting about the EU. In Estonia and Finland—countries that I follow the closest—Brussels is not expected to help countries out of the crisis—national leaders are.

There is a good amount of truth to such thinking. Yet it would be mistaken and dangerous to let the EU sink into irrelevance as each country focuses on taking care of its own.

Estonia and Finland are a prime example of how closely connected European states and economies have become. Just 30 years ago the two countries were separated by the crumbling iron curtain. Last year, there was a record number of 8.8 million travellers on ferries between Helsinki and Tallinn.[1] The figure includes approximately 20,000 Estonian residents who have jobs in Finland and commute on a weekly or monthly basis. Furthermore, in recent years a small but growing number of people, including myself, have started to commute in the opposite direction, having their homes in Helsinki and jobs in Tallinn. There are ambitious plans for developing Talsinki as a twin city and site of technological innovation, clean environment and top-class education.

The density of connections would hardly be as high without the EU’s common market, common currency and Schengen area. Now the pandemic has closed commuter traffic, and other economic and human ties are suffering too. Thousands of Estonians working in Finland have been forced to choose whether to spend the emergency time working and not seeing their family, or returning home and losing income.

Our national leaders are right to concentrate on saving their own citizens and companies, this is their obligation. But now that the early shock period of the crisis draws to a close, it is also necessary to forge a sense of Europeans being in the same boat. In order to move forward, EU Member States need to row in the same rhythm and direction: to coordinate a fiscal response, allow continued functioning of the single market, ensure that restrictions on people’s movement are introduced and later on removed in a coordinated manner, use joint procurements of medical equipment, support scientific cooperation in developing a vaccine against the virus etc.

The crisis hits at the heart of the EU, although some of the key answers, such as health policy, are not in the EU’s competence. For decades, integration has been lowering borders and taming nationalism in Europe. Now borders are at least temporarily returning and nationalism seems to be experiencing a revival. The current situation highlights the limits of the EU: it is not a state (not even a federal one, let alone centralised, as Eurosceptics sometimes claim) and should not be judged on the basis of expectations that it should act like a state. Yet it has an indispensable complementary role to play in helping its Member States survive and succeed. We Europeans—Finns, Estonians, Italians and others—need the euro, Schengen, a joint European approach to the global economy and many other things the EU does in order to limit the damage of the current crisis.

It is possible that the Finnish-Estonian connections will suffer a longer-term reduction beyond the crisis. But it is also possible that they will bounce back to new heights once the restrictions are removed. The latter option would certainly be more favourable to economic recovery on both sides. The EU provides the necessary legal and institutional framework for the latter option to become reality.

 

[1] Tallinna Sadam, „Tallinna Sadama reisijate arv kasvas 12.aastat järjest“, 12.01.2020,

www.ts.ee/tallinna-sadama-reisijate-arv-kasvas-12-….