Europe’s most modern border reduced to a fence for now

Ege Tamm
, reporter
Photo: Tairo Lutter

The government concluded, after a sitting in the Piusa border cordon yesterday, that Estonia’s grand eastern border will initially consist of just a long fence. The border project that was launched as Europe’s most modern two governments ago will also have to do without modern surveillance technology, such as drones, for now.

“We simplified this initially utopian project,” Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said. To garner support for the new and revised plan among other ministers, the government took a stroll along an undeveloped section of the border yesterday. Journalists were left waiting. Ministers found common ground after just 20 minutes walking in woods bordering Russia.

It was agreed to scrap plans for a wildlife fence that was supposed to run parallel to the border fence meant to stop smugglers and illegal border crossings. The former was meant to make sure animals in the vicinity of the border fence would not cause false alarms.

Animal barrier unnecessary

“Once we have our cameras and drones in place, there is no great need for the wildlife fence,” Helme said. The minister said the border should have around 700 cameras to give guards an overview of the situation should sensors sound the alarm. “They will show whether the sensor was tripped by a hare, moose or man,” the interior minister explained.

Another element to be scrapped is a strip of sand to record footprints. Access roads will be narrower than initially planned. “They do not have to support four-ton trucks; it is enough for officers to be able to move around on ATVs,” Helme said.

The government decided to develop the land border in Southeastern Estonia first, with work on river and lake borders put on hold. The government has allocated around €80 million for the southeastern border so far and added a further €12 million yesterday. The new estimate for the development of the entire eastern border stands at €130.5 million, down €57.5 million compared to the initial plan.

Modern surveillance systems will be installed eventually. The government plans to apply for €40 million in European support to pay for the technology. “Building the border fence will take time. In this time, the new European budget period will open. We can prepare our applications, and it is possible we will have surveillance equipment soon after we complete the fence. We have nowhere to attach sensors and cameras without the fence,” Helme said.

The same old border?

The interior minister finds that giving up all the “bells and whistles” will not weaken the border. “I believe border security has not been weakened,” he said. “We learned from the 3.5-kilometer test section that highlighted the initial plan’s weaknesses and where we can cut costs. There are a lot of such avenues,” he said.

Why weren’t more economical solutions considered years ago? Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said that several options were considered. “The question of whether constructing the border in the planned volume was sensible came up back in the cabinet in 2018. We can see how quickly technology changes,” Ratas said.

Helme said the ministry has no plans for additional border guards to man the new border. He said that a domestic security reserve unit to be created following Helme’s initiative could be employed in border defense. “One of the functions of the internal security reserve is to act as a rapid response unit in case of more serious border incidents. For example, mass border crossings, disasters. Anything from a meteorite destroying a section of border infrastructure,” Helme said.

The government hopes to conclude the procurement by the year’s and launch construction in early 2020.