If there’s a silver lining to the looming start of the contentious Brexit process, it can be found in the Eastern European country of Estonia.
The country, which two years ago launched a program to allow anyone to apply for digital residency, said this week that it has seen a surge of applications from people living in the U.K. over the past several months. And it’s expecting that pace to accelerate again, with the U.K. government expected on Wednesday to announce it has taken the steps to officially trigger the start of talks for it withdraw from the European Union.
Estonia is seeking to capitalize on the interest by creating a marketing campaign aimed at U.K. startups. That includes creating a website specifically for British entrepreneurs: Howtostayin.eu. The government wants to promote itself as a way for those British entrepreneurs to stay physically in the U.K.. while still being able to access Europe’s Single Market via Estonia.
“The U.K. may have chosen to leave the E.U., but its entrepreneurs can still choose to remain inside the E.U.’s business environment,” said Kaspar Korjus, managing director of the e-Residency program, in a statement. “The U.K. is a great friend to Estonia so we’re proud to help businesses there succeed with this smart and transparent solution.”
Estonia’s e-Residency program has received about 15,000 applications worldwide since it launched two years ago. Before British voters narrowly approved the so-called “Brexit” last summer, the government reported that about 231 of those applications had come from the U.K.
During the week after the vote delivered a surprising result, the number of applications from the U.K. jumped to 51, up from an average of 3 per week before the vote. The total number of U.K. applications has now climbed to 988, and the Estonian government projects it will top 1,000 this week as the Brexit talks are triggered.
Launched in 2015, the residency program allows anyone to become an official resident of Estonia without having to move there. E-Residents are given an identification card with a chip that uses 2048-bit public key encryption. With that digital ID, they can access government services to set up a company or open a bank account in Estonia without ever needing to actually visit.
Those 15,000 applications have come from 135 countries, but now it appears the U.K. is poised to become the primary source of Estonian e-Residents.
The country has aggressively promoted the program as a way to expand its economy and become a central hub of the global digital marketplace. E-Residents have launched 1,000 new companies based in Estonia. These companies, in turn, pay taxes and fees for other services that contribute to the country’s economy. And, unlike some European countries, Estonia is not using any tax shelter schemes to lure prospective residents or companies.
“There will be plenty of discussions about national boundaries in the years ahead, but the internet is already transforming the very concept of nationhood,” Korju said. “E-Residency can reunite entrepreneurs between the U.K. and the rest of Europe, at least digitally.”