Editor : Martin Simamora, S.IP |Martin Simamora Press

Kamis, 16 Februari 2012

Estonia's e-government solution

For several years now the world has lived in the shadow of the recession. Indeed, for some member states of the EU, the financial crisis still looms large, and it is consequently affecting the Eurozone as a whole. However, although the recession hit hard, it also highlighted Europe's ability to react to serious problems in a truly effective way. Faced with often divergent interests and prospects, the governments of the EU have managed to reach agreements on a range of measures that are designed to improve the sustainability of state financing, boost competition and prevent such a crisis taking hold again in the future.

EU member states have managed to agree on mechanisms that ensure the financial stability of the Eurozone and the EU, and the functioning of the single market. Having only acceded to the Eurozone this year, the government of Estonia is frequently asked whether we regret our decision to adopt the euro at a time when we are having to support countries for whose problems we are entirely blameless. The answer I give has always been, and will always be, the same: the euro is of enormous benefit to Estonia in any event, which is why we view our transition to the single currency as such an achievement. At the same time, being part of the Eurozone means that we have to meet all of the obligations that this entails.

It is a question of solidarity, which is one of the cornerstones of the EU. We do not know when we may need the help and support of others; providing it is a moral duty. Moreover, it means that a crisis situation in one member state of the Eurozone is far from being just that country's problem: in a common market, one nation's concerns are shared by everybody.

Of course, we should not forget that every country is still primarily responsible for its own economy and finances, which is why the loans from the support funds are issued on such strict conditions. Measures designed to promote growth will only work once a country has put its finances in order: public services cannot be provided using borrowed money, and doing so is neither sustainable nor morally justifiable. Consequently, this financial support, coupled with decisive action on the part of governments, will ensure the desired results and emergence from the crisis. With hindsight we can see that riding out the recession has been less turbulent for those countries whose governments have managed to avoid excessive growth in public debt and maintain a minimal budget deficit.

According to Eurobarometer, electors also have faith in their governments in countries where the budget deficit and the level of public debt are low – with the greatest support being enjoyed in countries such as Luxembourg, Sweden and Estonia.

In Estonia we did not only keep our revenues and expenditures in balance, but were guided by the principle that its pays to boost your financial reserves when the general economic situation allows you to do so. Although there were recommendations to increase the level of public debt, the Estonian government decided against this and also did not use its reserves for a kind of 'economic doping'. If we had done so, we would not only have to repay loans, but would also be accruing substantial amounts of interest – happily we are now able to invest that money in new economic growth. On average, the EU spends 3% of its GDP every year paying interest on loans; in Estonia, however, we only pay 0.2%, whilst also earning more from the placement of our reserves than we pay in interest overall. Furthermore, Estonia has the lowest public sector debt in the EU, which stands at 6.6% of GDP.

Hopefully we will soon be speaking of the financial crisis in the past tense, enabling us to focus our efforts on the other challenges facing the EU. It seems strange, for instance, that we have yet to fully develop the internal market that forms the basis of our economic growth and wellbeing. For Estonia, the development of the internal market means, first and foremost, its adaptation to the demands of the digital age. Business operators and ordinary citizens alike must be able to carry out processes via electronic channels with other countries as easily as they are able to do so in their own nation. If this does not happen, there is no point to the term 'internal market' in the context of the EU.
Estonia, however, has good reason to be satisfied with the e-services it provides: the e-government solutions that have been developed in our country set the example in terms of their simplicity and transparency. This has had a positive influence on more than just the private sector; Estonian citizens have come to take the likes of the e-Tax and Customs Board and e-elections for granted, not to mention the other services that reduce bureaucracy and make their lives much simpler.

The 'Arab spring', meanwhile, has brought another serious problem to the attention of the EU this year: illegal immigrants and refugees. To some extent this has tested the very principles on which the EU is based: the debates that ignited earlier in the year about reinforcing the Schengen zone included proposals regarding the temporary closure of borders. The reinforcement of the Schengen zone is not about restoring national borders, but restoring trust. Doing so depends on us acting together – it is important that all member states fulfil their obligations on an equal footing and help those having difficulty meeting theirs.

Reinstating national borders is something we can and should only consider under exceptional circumstances. It must be the last resort in a situation where requirements are not being met and there are no signs of improvement. Even then a collective decision would be needed. Understanding and compassion must be shown to refugees, who are seeking security and a sense of certainty; – positive assurances that the EU offers to its own citizens. Over the decades the EU has grown into an area of great stability that no crisis has yet managed to destroy.

The bigger this area of stability is, the better for the EU as a whole. It is for this reason that Estonia is one of the countries that supports, in principle, the continued expansion of the EU, since this will underpin peace and stability in Europe. As such, we must keep our door open to those who share our values and who are willing to work hard to meet the conditions of accession.


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