Former ministers: Estonia should not be shy in dealings with Finland

Former foreign ministers Urmas Reinsalu (left) and Urmas Paet.
Former foreign ministers Urmas Reinsalu (left) and Urmas Paet. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Two former foreign ministers and political heavyweights say that the Estonian government should be more proactive and assertive in dealing with Finland's policy of keeping its borders closed to ferry-borne commuters coming from Estonia, reportedly in violation of European Commission principles on free movement. The question is more a political one than one of health-care, the pair said, at a time when Finland goes to the polls Sunday in its local elections.

While sitting foreign minister Eva-Mari Liimets (Center), a former diplomat, did not find time on Tuesday to comment to ETV morning magazine show "Terevisioon" Tuesday, Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), who was foreign minister in the last administration, was able to do just that, and said that he found it remarkable that while he wrote a Riigikogu address to Finland on the issue at the end of January, this has been held up for over three months.

"The reason being that we feel we must not offend Finland by quarreling with them," Reinsalu, a highly visible political actor during his time as foreign minister, in a term which included Estonia's accession to non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council, told "Terevisioon"'s Liisu Lass.

"My message would be this: We should not be too timid with our esteemed neighbor. Every country should stand up for its citizens, for its own interests," he said, noting that bringing something proactively to the negotiating table was also best practice.

Estonia must demonstrate to Finland – who retain the same border regime with Sweden – that restoring work commuting is the most important issue, from an Estonian perspective, in bilateral relations at the moment, while Estonia should be show to be ready to bring more to the table as well.

How to resolve the issue in practical terms would not be something for officialdom, he added.

"This is a political issue, and if we pass on the message that this situation could ruin our relationship if it is not resolved immediately, our democratic neighbor will no doubt draw conclusions from that and seek some compromise. There is no doubt about that. We have to be stronger, louder and bolder – there is nothing to be ashamed of. We have tens of thousands of people who are trapped there [in Finland]," the former foreign minister went on.

Also appearing on "Terevisioon" was MEP Urmas Paet (Reform), who added that while Estonia should keep the pressure up, so should the European Commission.

Paet said: "The nature of the problem is a broader one, as Finland has also been violating the EU principle of free movement for several months, meaning the European Commission must respond, since the country is not fulfilling its commitments. Second, this is not just about labor migration but about the free movement of people. This has been agreed by the EU.

Paet also noted that the issue was now a political one, given Finland goes to the polls Sunday in local elections already postponed two months due to the pandemic.

"It has to be talked about via all sorts of channels. Finnish society should also realize that the issue has not been one simply of health for some time now, but rather a political issue. We know that local elections are coming up in Finland; the closure of the country is a relatively popular move, and no politician would publicly state that what the Finnish state has done is wrong, though they may say so in conversation," Paet, who was foreign minister for over nine years during the prime ministerial term of Andrus Ansip (Reform), continued.

Urmas Reinsalu called last week's move by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) to summon the Finnish ambassador only after his country had made a decision to permit air travel into Finland, but not sea-borne travel, a strange one in terms of its timing.

"Usually, such steps are taken before something needs to be achieved, not after a decision - then there is nothing more to do," he said.

Urmas Paet noted that the politicization of the issue can be observed in other countries during the pandemic as well, without naming them.

Estonia also has local elections on the horizon, in October.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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