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Reversing the Brain Drain

A concern for the Estonian labor market policy is the so-called "brain drain", i.e. emigration of workers to Nordic and other countries, and the prospects of immigration of workers from other East European countries. What is the President's perspective on this development?

According to the report on European mobility, almost seven percent of Estonians are considering moving to some other European Union country during the next five years. Should we become panicked or depressed about this? My answer is no. On the one hand, such a "wish to depart" is inevitable, since Estonian residents are lured abroad by hopes of the higher incomes and superior working conditions, which many believe are better in the older European Union countries than they are in Estonia today. On the other hand, we should also recognize what is positive for Estonia in all this. We should even promote our young people moving around in the world, acquiring new knowledge, and meeting interesting people. Thereby, they become inwardly enriched and improved. 

The primary question for us as a country is how to get the people who have traveled further away to come back home with their new ideas. Therefore, Estonia must create preconditions that "our brains" come back and that "other brains" find their way here. This after all is what Ireland did: for a century and a half people emigrated from Ireland. Since becoming a genuine economic success, Irishmen and women are returning. To sum up in one sentence -- we must provide reasons that keep young people in Estonia and bring back the tens of thousands that have left in the last 15 years. 

What does the President think about establishing something similar to the Nordic model for cooperation between the government and NGOs representing employers and employees?

 The keyword is dialogue – dialogue between employees and employers, between the state and the citizens, between the state and NGOs. If we wish all the people of Estonia to be proud that they live in Estonia and not elsewhere, we must think about all our compatriots, regardless of their nationality, heritage, or religion. I have said repeatedly that the state is not a club of politicians, which others can enter only by showing a membership card.
It is very important that Estonian people perceive that Estonia cares; that they live in a country that cares about them. If we want our country to have a high ranking in Europe for economic growth and prosperity, and not just for suicides and depression, we must care. In democratic countries, cooperation between the public, private, and third sectors has always advanced society and it is impossible to overestimate the value of a strong civil society. In Estonia today, fairly effective information exchange already exists between the public and private sectors in policy planning and decision making, however, there is room for improvement in the participation of the third sector.  

I like the concept of "social dialogue", which is defined by a very simple thing mutual respect. We probably understand that employers need qualified and motivated workers who do their jobs well, who can do their jobs in a secure environment for appropriate wages, that the legal space for working should be stable and predictable, and that all changes should be discussed in advance and agreed upon. A good and rational employer knows that there are two choices: to be worker-friendly and understand the human, as well as familial, worries of the workers or keep buying advertising space in the newspapers to publish wanted ads. 

Estonia, it is commonly claimed, wants to be regarded a Nordic country. Still there are obvious and profound differences between Estonian and e.g. Norwegian welfare policies. To what extent does the President consider the Scandinavian/Nordic welfare state a good model for Estonia?

I am sorry to see that such outdated clichés are still spreading. I recommend a little homework in the future, or an examination of what is happening in Estonia – Estonian and Nordic welfare policies are not so different, actually they are increasingly similar. The primary question is money.

Membership of NATO and the EU has been crucial in Estonia's post-Soviet political project. As for Estonia's approach to the much-celebrated "liberal values" however, many paradoxes remain. For instance, the relationship with Russia and Russians seems to have been decisive in shaping Estonia's very restrictive immigration policy. According to the most recent UNHCR statistics [for 2004], there are not more than 11 refugees residing in Estonia (in Norway there's more than 40.000). What is the President's vision for the next generation?

I am surprised that the comparison of the number of immigrants in the old welfare state of Norway and Estonia, which only joined the European Union and NATO a few years ago, seems paradoxical to you. Estonia is fully open to free movement of labor in the EU, something that many EU members – for example France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, etc. – are not yet willing to do. If you start to think about the wishes of immigrants, you will understand where this difference comes from. As the President, I can assure you that Estonia's immigration policies are definitely not restrictive – our citizenship law is considerably more liberal than those in many other European Union member states.
Since 1997, when Estonia joined the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Additional Protocols, Estonia has received an average of ten or so applications for asylum per year, and the number of applications did not increase after the accession to the European Union. It is difficult to compete with Norway in this matter if there just are not as many applications. Norway is simply a richer country and hence offers more benefits to asylum seekers. In general I appreciate interviews where the interviewer puts a little more thought into his or her questions.

By Morten Tonnessen