26th May 2017

Are digital rights the key to unlocking international trade?

Whilst some countries are intent on closing their borders, the call in Estonia – and a theme of the first day at tech conference Latitude59 – is to become a nation without borders

Not in the UK, and certainly not in the USA, would a technology conference be led and opened by the head of state, in the case of Estonia the inspirational President Kersti Kaljulaid. The content too would be different, based as President Kaljulaid’s speech was on achieving a wholly digital society – something which saves at least 2% of GDP, and makes enormous environmental savings. Yes, in Estonia things are different.  

Central though border free trade is, it is however important to note that this is certainly not a love and peace mission. Estonia borders its former occupier, Russia and a daily reminder of both past and future comes in the shape of buildings such as the venue for Latitude59 and Lift99 – heavy Soviet era industrial relics, now repurposed. Estonia is also one of five NATO countries that spends more than the target 2% of GDP on defence. Add this to the 800 British troops currently stationed here and it’s clear that, though Estonians aren’t building any walls, robust physical defence of the country’s borders is not an inconsequential consideration. 

An e-national trade network

Nevertheless, the Latitude59 tech theme was carried on through President Kaljulaud’s address, and into a panel discussion with her and Japanese super-investor Taizo Son, as well as Kaid Ruu and Peter Vesterbacka. Technology in Estonia, and through this international conference is seen as a force which can be for good – not something to peg back in a quest for coal and old industries. Estonia now has almost 20,000 e-Residents, who enjoy a number of benefits. A major announcement made on the first day of the festival – that borderless banking was now being made available by Finnish bank Holvi – has in effect completed the first wish list of the e-Residency programme – and now they are looking for more, ambitious goals. An exciting time for those of us in the e-resident community…

In effect, Estonia is saying the opposite of most countries, desperate for tourists but not immigrants. It’s not saying, “come to Estonia” – it’s saying – have the benefits of being Estonian, and you don’t have to come; but if you want to come, you’re also welcome. Refreshing…

Because Estonia is wholly transparent with other states on tax revenues, it isn’t saying it’s a tax haven, either – indeed not, it has a 20% rate of tax.  But by attracting businesses, it will gain tax revenue and prosper from its openness. E-Residency makes the cost of setting up a business little more than nominal, so attractions for start-ups are clear. 

Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, has a target of almost 10 times as many e-Residents. It could well be an exciting journey. 

Paul Berwin is a leading technology and digital law specialist. During May 2017, he is spearheading Berwins' trade mission to Estonia.

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