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Reverse brain drain benefits Estonia

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

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Having traveled the world, many Estonians are returning home to spur the local economy.

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TALLINN, Estonia (CNN) -- With a population of less than 1.5 million, Estonia is one of the smallest countries joining the European Union on May 1.

Many Estonians have been traveling abroad to seek qualifications and jobs in a wider world.

But the country's open economy and its readiness to join the EU is now drawing many more of them home.

"A small nation can be successful only if the people can move around the world, to work, to live and then of course to return back," says Juhan Parts, Estonia's prime minister.

With their country about to join the EU, plenty of Estonians are taking the return trip.

Kalev Tanner spent 10 years in the United States and Britain getting business qualifications and working as an investment banker.

He's come back and founded Bocca, Estonia's trendiest restaurant, seeing plenty of advantages.

"To set up a business here is clearly significantly easier than it is in the U.S.," Tanner says. "It's a small country so if you want to get something done you only have to motivate a few people to do it."

In a country formerly ruled by the Soviet Union there are downsides with staff -- "It's very difficult to explain what is a good service," Tanner says -- and supplies too can be a problem.

"One would think we would have plenty of fish supplies for the restaurant business. What happens is all the fish that's caught here gets packaged and shifted to the EU and we have to buy it back," he says.

So EU entry, Tanner reckons, will open doors.

"Right now we have the greatest difficulties getting really good wine. It is just a very, very difficult process. That will be taken away so that we can have just as good a wine list as any restaurant in France or London."

Estonia is already benefiting from the reverse brain drain. Tanner figures most Estonians abroad will come back in the end. And he's now ready to expand his business north to Finland.

"Given we're going to be part of the EU, that gets much more realistic, because we can switch staff between countries, which up to now has been very difficult," he says.

Corruption and bureaucracy have deterred some people, but a number of Estonians who've lived and worked abroad are pitching in to help their country's economy expand.

The question now is whether it will be enough to counter the loss of qualified young Estonians leaving to try their luck elsewhere in the EU.


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