New Year with new currency – Estonia adopts euro

Estonia is starting 2011 with bank machines dishing out a new currency, as the Baltic state becomes the 17th member of the Eurozone.

­However, while officials are celebrating the historic switch, Estonians fear their poor living standards are about to get worse.

Two friends, Irina and Alexandra, live oceans apart – Irina in her native Estonia, Alexandra in Ireland – but they have one concern on their minds: how to make it in these tough economic times. But, according to Irina, their definitions of hardship could not be more different.

If Irish people had a chance to experience what life is like here in Estonia, I think there would’ve been no rallies in Dublin. They simply don’t appreciate what they have,” says Irina. “Take my friend for example. She gets an employment payout each month, and with this money, she’s able to support her child, to study and save for air tickets to visit her parents here in Estonia. If you are on welfare in Estonia, you simply can’t make ends meet.

The gap in living standards within the European Union is huge but it may get even bigger. Slated to join the Eurozone from January first, Estonia now have to contribute 800 million euros to the EU solidarity fund, which will be partially used to maintain Ireland’s lavish social programs. Analysts say the arrangement will keep rich countries richer and their poor neighbors poorer.

It is not fair for Estonia to start its membership in the Eurozone by paying the debts of others, believes Ivar Raid, an Estonian economist.

Living standards in Estonia are 63 per cent of the European average, in Ireland they are 120 per cent," he told RT.

When Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, most of its residents saw the membership as their ticket to prosperity. The country drastically cut social spending to fit the EU requirements – a move that provoked little public discontent. Estonians just tightened their belts, and, according to Jurgen Ligi, the country’s finance minister, they are ready to do it again. This time to let the Irish continue wearing theirs loose.

"You can’t avoid obligations if you are taken to the club," Ligi told RT.

A poster with a girl with summery flair and an inviting smile promotes Estonia’s inclusion into the Eurozone. But the reality of this move is so far proving far less alluring. 

The average unemployment benefit in Ireland is 800 euros, and that is what a jobless Estonian would get in a year. And while some politicians are trying to portray this as a matter of solidarity and European unity, some Estonians see it as a sign of discord in living standards and inequality in shouldering the hardship.