May 15, 2014

10 years of the European Union for Estonia—Ups, Downs and the Way Ahead

The European Union is not some external entity in Brussels. We are the European Union.

In October 2003, former President Lennart Meri wrote, “The precondition for a functioning European Union is saying yes. YES to difference, which is YES to strength.  … it was the exact opposite in the Soviet Union. Estonia’s strategy for self-determination has to be based on YES. Not a passive, but an active and insistent YES. Estonia must know exactly what to do in the European Union. Being in the European Union is constantly deciding and decision-making here in Tallinn and accounting for the decisions and choices in a reasoned way in Brussels.”
Ten years ago, a great desire and goal came true for Estonia—we became a member of the European Union (EU). Much work had been done, but even more lay ahead, as membership means active involvement, participation and responsibility. Our main objective has been to work for the interests of Estonia and the whole of Europe—in Estonia, Brussels and all the other member states. Taking part in the EU’s work and decision-making processes is in essence a constant negotiation. During the run-up to accession, our negotiating team was responsible for getting the best deal; after accession, all our representatives in some 200 EU working groups became negotiators in the name of Estonia.
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It quickly became clear that the Estonian folk saying “speech is silver, silence is golden” did not apply in the EU. Constant communication must be achieved between Tallinn, Brussels and the capitals of the European Union in order to promote our interests on specific matters by talking to interest groups and agencies at home and to explain our point of view to the representatives of other member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The key lies in cooperation between the Riigikogu—the Parliament of Estonia—and the government, as the viewpoints to be defended must be those of all Estonia, not only the government. It is of the utmost importance to be aware of the Commission’s plans from the outset, so as to have the best chance of influencing initiatives to Estonia’s best advantage. In defining one’s interests and standing up for them, the interests of other member states must not be forgotten. Like-minded partners have to be found to ensure effective cooperation. We can also promote Estonian views in our areas of interest at the policymaking level through the Estonians working in EU institutions—last year there were a total of 580 Estonian EU employees (360 in substantive positions and 180 in technical ones). The precondition for this is maintaining contacts and exchanging information.
What has EU accession given to Estonia? The short answer is freedom, stability and well-being. According to a Eurobarometer public opinion survey last year, 65% of Estonians thought that the most positive outcome of the EU was the free movement of persons, goods and services. Joining the EU has provided more freedom and room to act for the Estonian people. As Estonia’s exports to other EU member states make up 70–80% of our total exports, the common market is of the utmost importance to us. Thanks to the free movement of goods, Estonian entrepreneurs have unrestricted access to the EU market of 500 million people; our consumers have a wider selection of products and ranges; and consumer protection has improved. The free movement of persons gives our people the right to move freely throughout the EU as well as to settle and work in whichever member state they wish, without restrictions. At the same time, the right to travel visa-free to many third countries has been extended to Estonian citizens.
In the early years of our membership, it was in our interests to remove restrictions towards new member states, and today we have accomplished this task. The restrictions on employment that some member states initially applied to new members have now been abolished. At the end of 2007, Estonia joined the Schengen Area, as a result of which border controls disappeared for Estonian citizens. Estonia’s contribution to the Schengen Information System is also physically visible in Estonia in the form of the European Agency for Large-scale IT Systems in the area of home affairs, which was set up in December 2012 and is based in Tallinn. The unified Schengen Area has made it considerably easier for people living outside the EU to travel and strengthen business and economic ties with Europe. While it was extremely complicated in some countries to get a visa to visit Estonia ten years ago, thanks to the visa representation agreements concluded with our Schengen partners people from 92 countries around the world with no Estonian consulate can now apply for a visa to visit Estonia.
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Like all Europeans, we want a more competitive Europe. This is facilitated by developing the internal market. Among the four freedoms of the EU, the free movement of services is the area with the largest scope for improvement. Although services embrace two-thirds of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the EU, cross-border services only make up one-fifth of the EU’s internal trade. The European Commission estimates that implementing the Services Directive could result in a complementary economic profit amounting to about 2.6% of GDP, which would have a positive effect on employment. Estonia also keeps the creation of a digital single market high on the EU agenda; this would enable services to be used electronically in any EU member state. At the moment, the most important issues concerning the provision of cross-border e-services are related to the electronics identity (e-authentication and digital signatures). Going against the deepening of the internal market, calls for restricting some freedoms, such as the freedom of movement, have also emerged. The four main freedoms in the EU are one of the key pillars of the Union, and we most certainly cannot support restricting them.
Estonia’s wealth has increased during our membership of the EU. In 2004, Estonia’s GDP per capita was 58% of the EU average on the basis of purchasing power standard (PPS); in 2012, it was 71% of the average. Estonia’s economy grew during the post-accession years, reaching its peak in 2006 (real GDP growth 10.4%). Economic growth has been preconditioned by creating a favourable economic environment and increasing competitiveness. Estonia has received additional measures to support its development from the EU’s structural funds. We were successful in the negotiations of the EU’s current budget framework (2014–2020), whereby allocations to Estonia increased compared to the previous budget framework—Estonia will receive €5.9 billion from the structural funds and in direct agricultural payments.
It is important to use these means in the most purposeful and beneficial way. We have so far managed to update a large portion of the country’s major infrastructure—roads, buildings and pipelines—with the support of the European resources; and economic growth, increasing people’s well-being as well as quality of work and life, will take centre stage in the future. Estonia channels EU resources into the development of education, employment, the economy, the environment and energy, transport and information technology. The focus is on target groups which for some reason cannot participate in the labour market.
In 2011, Estonia became the 17th EU member state to join the euro area. While acceding to the EU gave a strong impetus to the Estonian economy, joining the euro area helped us to recover from the economic crisis. Adopting the euro increased confidence in the Estonian economy, which helps to bring new investments and create new jobs. On top of that, the euro makes travelling easier and reduces currency conversion costs, also bringing about low loan interest rates.
With freedom comes responsibility. Upon joining the euro area Estonia, along with the other area members, had to face the European debt and monetary crisis. A strong and stable European economy is in the interests of Estonia, and the state therefore supported the creation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and a unified bank monitoring system. Thanks to these steps, the foundations of the euro area have steadied. Although there are still problems, the existence of the euro area is not threatened and finding solutions to the problems is an ongoing process. Although Estonia’s payments to the ESM have been criticised in Estonia, 76% of Estonians surveyed by Eurobarometer supported a unified EU monetary policy, the highest support yet seen.
The economic crisis has put the debate on the future of the EU back on the agenda. The founding treaties of the EU have been amended before, as the EU is deepening and enlarging—it is a natural process. Estonia wants to see a strong, effective and decisive EU. The current organisation of work in the EU has been criticised as the weakness of institutions, vagueness, arguments about competencies, and excessive bureaucracy has led to ineffectiveness and a deficit of democracy in the decision-making process. Some time ago, Estonia actively participated in developing both the Constitutional Treaty and the Treaty of Lisbon that followed. It is good that there are also discussions in Estonia on which model of the EU best fits our interests. During our ten years of membership, Estonia has realised that the community method—whereby the right of policy initiation lies with the European Commission–protects the interests of small countries better than the intergovernmental method. The Commission protects the interests and agreements of the entire Union by helping to balance the size and interests of its member states.
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Our security interests also demand as much integration as possible. I agree with the former President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, that “the EU is something that can expand the implementation of our national identity, if we so wish, but it cannot take identity away from us. Only we ourselves can do that, if we act short-sightedly.” In the decision-making mechanism of the EU, the European Parliament has increasingly more weight, which makes it important that the majority of the new members of the Parliament support a strong European Union and developments directed towards achieving it.
In ten years, Estonia has become a confident member state. Fears of our interests not being taken into account, of being “overridden”, have been shown to be without foundation. The EU’s decision-making processes directed at reaching consensus, on the one hand, and our own constructive mentality, on the other, have created a situation where Estonia’s interests are given due weight. Moreover, we have learned to lead the processes we regard as most important in a direction that is to our liking; the best examples of this are topics related to the digital single market.
Joining the European Union has given Estonia more influence than ever before. Our influence on matters regarding Europe and the world has increased considerably. Estonia is interested in developing well-being and security among the EU’s neighbours. At the moment, however, we are faced with a situation where Russia threatens to change the security architecture of Europe by occupying Crimea. The EU and its allies must be firm and resolute by rejecting Russia’s crude violation of international law, and be ready for steps to counter this type of behaviour. Russia’s current actions stem partly from the fact that its actions in Georgia in 2008 went virtually unanswered by the EU. It is very important to provide comprehensive help to Ukraine in reforming its society and economy, and to reassure Ukraine that it is seen as a European country with a prospect of EU accession.
Estonia has always supported the enlargement of the EU because we ourselves have experienced the positive influence of the integration process. Since Estonia became a member, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia have also acceded to the EU. Estonia has shared its reforming experience with other countries interested in enlargement. From the beginning of the European Neighbourhood Policy, Estonia has supported the establishment of greater ties with both eastern and southern neighbours. We have also supported the resolution of long-running conflicts in the EU’s hinterland.
Estonia continues to support advancing the EU’s partnership with the United States. Now that the EU and the US have started negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an economic dimension may soon be added to the long-standing security relationship between us. This would not only bring economic benefit to the parties, including Estonia, but also lay the foundations for regulating the global economy in a way that boosts free competition, equal opportunities and free markets.
All member states have their own foreign policy interests, based on their location and history. This has to be taken into account in multilateral cooperation. Different interests have meant that the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has been relatively clumsy thus far. Estonia wants to see an EU with a coherent foreign policy, and this has been facilitated by the establishment of the European External Action Service, which we want to see working with member states through positive cooperation and proceeding from stable priorities. Estonia is also interested in the effective exchange of information, especially on countries where we do not have permanent representation. The EU’s actions in the current Ukraine crisis are a key litmus test of a unified and influential EU foreign policy.
There is also room for improvement in the Common Defence and Security Policy, where we prioritise strengthening EU–NATO cooperation and improving strike capabilities. Estonia has done a good job within the Nordic Battle Group. Although such groups have existed for years, they have never been used due to a lack of consensual will among the member states. Estonia has participated or participates in seven EU civilian missions and five EU military missions, in our own neighbourhood and beyond.
Within the EU, the regional dimension has also been important for Estonia. Estonia was one of the initiators of the Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, launched in 2009. Its objectives are to protect the environment, increase prosperity and better connect the region. The shortage or absence of energy and transport connections within Europe has a security dimension as well as an economic one, as is demonstrated by the complexity of solving the crisis in Ukraine. The EU has understood the importance of this issue, by being ready to support the construction of a regional liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and the BalticConnector gas pipeline, in addition to RailBaltic and electricity connections including EstLink. Comprehensive cooperation between the Baltic States is very important in this context.
Estonia has a very broad range of interests in the EU, ranging from electronic identity to enlargement, from a strong monetary union to an effective foreign policy. In ten years, we have managed to build a system within which we are able to contribute to every topic that is relevant to us.
The next big test of character for Estonia as a member of the EU comes in the first half of 2018, when we will hold the presidency of the Council. As the presiding country, we must ensure the coordination and continuity of the decision-making process of the Council, be unbiased in discussion and take into account all standpoints. At the beginning of this year, the government approved an action plan on preparations for our presidency.
Opinion polls show that Estonians—who were more likely to be sceptical or neutral towards the EU before accession—are becoming increasingly supportive of the EU (in 2004, only 38% of Estonians were very positive towards it). In 2013, 80% of respondents supported Estonia’s membership of the EU. Our support for the EU is evidence that our people recognise the benefits of common EU rules and values, ranging from maintaining security to increasing well-being.
The European Union is not some strange entity in Brussels. We are the European Union. In ten years, we have arrived in a position where we feel a part of the whole, are capable of solving problems with our partners and know how to use the EU to strengthen our security and increase our well-being.