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A Smart Border – Or a Conflicting One

Submitted by on 26 Mar 2013 – 16:03

By Nils Torvalds MEP, Member of the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Co-operation Committee

The border between Finland and Russia is a very complicated one. It was a cultural border, partly a religious border, a border between local big powers and a Cold War-border. But besides the conflicts you will at the same time find something of stability. At the border you will find a stone with the year 1595 engraved on it – the peace of Teusina.

Something is stable, something less so. If we go back a little less than a century, the relationship between then newly independent Finland and what was then the Soviet Union, was not the easiest or warmest of relationships. Still today, the 1340 km long border is subject to a historical burden and still gives rise to passionate feelings – both positive and negative.

Today, our common border is less of a problem and more of an opportunity – at least this is how I see things. Positive and mutual opportunities come not only through the economic benefits the increased travelling and tourism gives rise to, but also through more encounters and meetings between people. These kinds of encounters will hopefully help us to gain a better understanding of not only our neighbours, but of ourselves as well – and the history behind, and the future ahead of, our long common border.

During the last few years, the passenger traffic between Finland and Russia has increased significantly. As of 2011 10.6 million passengers crossed the Finnish-Russian land border. This was a 27% increase in the amount of border crossings compared to the year before. Around 1 million Schengen visas were issued from Finland to Russia.

To put these numbers into perspective: Finland has a population of just over 5 million.

And it is not only passenger traffic that has increased, and continues to increase. The number of border crossings of heavy vehicles and the amount of heavy traffic has also grown on almost all crossing points at the Finnish-Russian border. At the same time, more and more traffic now comes in via the harbour and the airport in Helsinki, the Finnish capital.

Taking these statistics and this background into account, the importance of a modern, well-functioning and effective border control system is pivotal in ensuring smooth and safe border crossings. Even though there are definite positive aspects to increased travelling and human encounters, both social and economic, the rise in the amounts of border crossings also mean more work and place a heavier burden on some areas and border crossing points than others. The busy border traffic affects the South-eastern part of Finland in particular, and is part of daily life in cities like Imatra and Lappeenranta near the Russian border. The logistics and border control personnel are under heavy pressure and desperately need the benefits of improved technology and modern resources.

Another issue weighing heavily in favour of better and more modern border control management, especially from a Finnish point of view, is the fact that negotiations on the visa freedom between Finland and Russia are ongoing with positive prospects of realization. The Finnish Ministry of the Interior has estimated that, if, and when, visa freedom eventually materializes, the amount of travellers crossing the land border will quickly double, or even triple. This will put further pressure on our border crossing points, and especially on the already busy ones, which will become even busier.

The European Commission has now presented the so called smart borders legal initiative. The “smart borders” package aims to speed up, facilitate and reinforce border check procedures for foreigners travelling to the EU.

There is a need to move towards more modern and more efficient border management in the EU by, for example, using state-of-the-art technology. The “smart borders” package is an important tool in helping Member States to control and effectively run their external borders – especially for countries with long external borders, like Finland.

However, the “smart borders” initiative not only benefits the Member States with long external borders. It is, rather, in the interest of the EU as a whole to have a co-ordinated, well-functioning system that facilitates the easy access of tourists, business travellers and students into the Union and, at the same time, prevents irregular migration and cross-border crime.