May 27, 2019

Estonia’s 15 Years in the EU

Toomas Huik/PM/Scanpix
A tree-planting initiative was also organised in Estonia on 1 May 2004. Among others, president Lennart Meri and Riigikogu speaker Ene Ergma took part.
A tree-planting initiative was also organised in Estonia on 1 May 2004. Among others, president Lennart Meri and Riigikogu speaker Ene Ergma took part.

Ultimately, the European Union will remain a community of member states.

In the early morning of 1 May 2004, a number of members of the Riigikogu and other public figures gathered in the Governor’s Garden next to Toompea Castle in Tallinn and sang “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven and Schiller, the anthem of the European Union.

We had stepped over the threshold. It had been a long journey.

In 1991 we started almost from scratch. Most Europeans had never heard of Estonia. In 2009 a colleague in the European Commission asked whether there had been any snow that year in Riga; the Queen of the Netherlands congratulated me on our great success in football. Did we know the capitals of small countries in the Balkans?

Estonia is very small. In comparison to Belgium’s population density, Estonia is almost deserted.

Meaningless, of little importance, distant, with no democratic experience, and without European-level culture. Thank God we have Arvo Pärt.

For an average German, French or Belgian voter, we had to prove that Estonia existed and was a decent country.

We tried hard.

We had to prove that we could manage our finances. We had to prove that we weren’t SS sympathisers or neo-Nazis. We had to prove that Estonia wouldn’t be fertile ground for interethnic conflicts. We had to prove that Estonia’s considerable Russian minority felt comfortable here.

We had to prove that we were not a pointless former Soviet Socialist Republic of no use to Europe. And that we had a rich European cultural life. We had to prove that we were mature enough for Europe.

We had to prove that we were not a corrupt country and that we had a normal, functioning and sustainable democracy.

From the early days of regaining our independence—and, indeed, much earlier—almost all public figures in the new Estonia set out to prove to the world that we were part of Europe, not a Russian province lagging behind in development.

Estonia’s leadership was absolutely unanimous in doing this. A former political party, the People’s Union of Estonia (Rahvaliit), was against Estonia’s accession to the EU and, when a national referendum was organised, it became clear that the Centre Party (Keskerakond) was also reluctant.

Lennart Meri was one of the first to look at Estonia from outside. He made major efforts to prove to the rest of the world and the Estonian people that Estonia was part of Europe, throwing himself into the task. In a speech on 23 February 1993 at the University of Tartu, he said that, due to the Baltic Landesstaat, Estonia had essentially not been part of Russia, even though it was a Russian province at that time. In his welcome speech to Pope John Paul II, who visited Estonia in September that year, he gave the assurance that Rome had always been with us. Meri emphasised Estonia’s connection with Europe through the Baltic Germans.

Objectively, we are a very long way from Western Europe—the real Europe. Big Western European cities are thousands of kilometres away. St Petersburg and Moscow are both much closer. Our language has no relatives in Europe except for Finnish and Hungarian. Today the first foreign language we speak is English, and for many Estonians it is Russian; until the end of World War II it was German, one of Europe’s great languages. English is a world language and it is inevitable and necessary to master it, but it is the mother tongue of the Anglo-American world. It is distant from us. Even today, a large part of the world doesn’t even know that a country like Estonia exists.

1 May 2004 brought many changes. Estonia took its place among Europe’s decision-makers, together with other former Soviet satellite states. As a full member of the European Council, the Estonian prime minister was able to express his opinion about European (and world) affairs. In the EU’s executive institution—the European Commission—someone from Estonia began to work alongside representatives of other countries as an equal. Soon, six MEPS from Estonia were elected to the European Parliament.

Practically every decision made in the EU has a global impact. At first, a representative of a tiny and insignificant nation finds it difficult to get used to this. But we adapted. Representatives of Estonia have never had such an opportunity to express their opinions about world affairs. Of course, large countries have more influence. Nevertheless, we are treated equally at the negotiating table at the Council and the Commission.

The excellent Russian publicist and Putin critic Yulia Latynina said in a recent interview that Estonians would be happier in the Russian Empire.1 Really? When were Estonians in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union on equal terms with Russians?

Having a say also means having a sense of responsibility. Estonia’s representatives are expected to participate in discussions on global climate policy, security and migration, influencing the global economy as well as helping to resolve other problems. If we have no sense of responsibility and will, this unprecedented opportunity to decide on global and European matters has no point. It will just go to waste.

We formally became Europeans, citizens of the EU, on 1 May 2004. We are still Estonians, but we also became Europeans. As EU citizens, we have additional rights in member states that those of a non-member friendly country don’t. These are the opportunities to move freely, search for a job, live where we want, participate in local and European parliamentary elections, use the consular services of any member state when abroad, and have direct recourse to European institutions.

The EU was established as the European Economic Community with the aim of increasing shared economic welfare. For the past 15 years, Eastern Europe has also enjoyed economic growth.

In 1992, the GDP of the 11 future Eastern European member states was lower than that of Australia, South Korea, Mexico and the European Free Trade Association. In the past 25 years, it has increased by a factor of 4.7 and is now higher than those.

Between 2000 and 2007, exports from the Baltic states increased five-fold, compared to less than double in the EU-15 (i.e. the longer-standing member states).

When accession negotiations started, foreign investment increased exponentially, reaching 10% of GDP.

In early April 2019, a prestigious conference was organised to present large-scale analyses of what had happened in the 15 years since the Eastern European countries joined the EU.

Between 2000 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by an average of 250% in new member states, compared to only 50% in the EU as a whole. Annual income per capita increased 50% in new member states and 10% in the EU in general. Growth has been especially rapid in the Baltic states, although of course as former members of the Soviet Union we started from a worse position.

Interestingly, competitiveness (as measured by the relevant index from 2007 to 2018) hasn’t improved equally in different countries. It has improved in the EU as a whole and in Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland and Romania, while remaining unchanged in Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Innovation and development activities (the Horizon 2020 and COSME programmes) have increased exponentially thanks to EU aid.

The economies of countries that joined in 2004 have received significant amounts from other member states. Since then, we and our companions have been granted a total of 209.2 billion euros through cohesion policy measures, including 99.2 billion euros for Poland and 5.1 billion euros for Estonia. Almost the entire Estonian drinking-water supply system has been upgraded with sewage treatment plants thanks to European funds.

Fifteen years in the EU has brought us a whole new quality of life. Immediately before accession, we were required to adopt a competition law that complied with European rules, and we did. As a minister, I was the rapporteur; how new and strange this detailed set of rules on fair competition seemed to us at the time!

The whole of Europe grumbles a lot about the numerous prescriptions and rules that must be followed in the EU. But let’s look at this from the other side. It is extremely difficult to get a certificate confirming that an aircraft (aeroplane, helicopter) complies with European safety requirements. For example, one type of aeroplane from a certain neighbour of Estonia still hasn’t been permitted to fly in European airspace, despite a permit being requested for several years. However, an aviation equipment manufacturer said at an annual conference on aviation safety that under no circumstances should European requirements be loosened; they are a badge of quality. If a product has a European certificate, it means it is the best in the world. This is also the case with food, medications and many commodities.

One family business that manufactures wooden structures for children’s playgrounds reached the final round of the Estonian Entrepreneurship Awards. It had customers from many countries, including Taiwan. The company asked its customers why they wanted to buy products from the other side of the world. The answer was: you’re from Europe. People want the best quality in the world.

In this way, the EU has contributed significantly to the export of goods. Would manufacturers in small countries have such an opportunity otherwise? (Of course, you must be capable of making excellent products in the first place.)

Over the past 15 years the EU has gone through a lot.

In 2008 the EU was hit by a major economic crisis (the debt crisis, banking crisis or whatever we call it now). It was a very severe financial blow. In retrospect it can be said that the EU recovered from this much better than the world dealt with the Great Depression of 1929­–33.

Helping member states who were having difficulties was part of the solution. Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, Latvia, Hungary, Romania—all of these were insolvent, and at one point on the verge of bankruptcy.

Under the EU’s auspices, the countries in difficulty were saved from bankruptcy and were granted the necessary loans by the EU institutions and other member states, totalling more than 500 billion euros. Preventing the collapse of the entire banking system caused a huge increase in public debt, which grew by 50%.

Over the past 15 years, European countries have been asked several times what they think about the EU’s development.

Estonia was already a member when the Union went through a very difficult constitutional process. This could also be called a crisis of sorts, concerning agreement over the identity and principles of the EU.

One of the landmarks of Estonia’s 15 years membership was definitely the presidency of the EU in the second half of 2017. Ekspress Meedia/Scanpix

After the so-called “transitional” Treaty of Nice in 2001, it was decided that a new core document should be developed for the EU—what was initially called the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. A Convention on the Future of Europe was set up to prepare the document, which was completed in 2004. The agreement, no longer “constitutional” but called the Treaty of Lisbon, entered into force in 2009 after a difficult ratification and amendment process. And it is still in force, which is good considering our need for stability. In total, six referenda were held: Spain and Luxembourg approved the treaty; France and the Netherlands rejected the first version in 2005; Ireland rejected it in 2008 but approved it the following year.

Estonia also organised a referendum on EU accession, held on 14 September 2003. The vote was 66.83% in favour and 33.17% against. Referenda on approving European source documents had previously been organised by the UK and France, and twice by Denmark and Ireland (before 2008 and 2009).

The latest referendum that has influenced the fate of Europe was held in the UK on 23 June 2016, with 51.9% of voters supporting leaving the EU.

The round of EU enlargement in 2004 was a great historical breakthrough for Europe and, indeed, for the whole world. For us for Estonia, and probably also for the other Eastern European countries involved, this was a major leap forward.

This also brought new opportunities for longer-standing EU members. Massive investment went into the new member states. We know that the increase of foreign investment from Sweden and Finland has accelerated Estonia’s economic development. Investments are not made for no reason, but to increase profit. Revenues increased in Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere.

However, enlargement brought problems as well as solutions. The EU grew poorer, with GDP per capita falling by 8.9%. That is quite a plunge. Until 2007 and even in 2011, many established member states imposed restrictions on the free movement of labour. Nevertheless, the inflow of new labour into the economies of longer-standing member states increased significantly. This was good for the economy, but not so good for the residents. In 2005 the French voted against the new Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. They were heavily influenced by the so-called campaign against Polish plumbers.

In December 2018 the European Commission published an analysis titled The Geography of Discontent, which shows that the enlargement of 2004 did not have a uniformly positive effect on the EU.

Euroscepticism increased by more than 20% between 2004 and 2018. In national elections in 2004, political parties opposed to the EU received about 10% of votes, while in 2018 they got more than 25%.

The reasons for discontent were also examined. The slowing of economic growth and the loss of local and Europe-wide competitive power are two of the main ones. The lower the level of education and the employment rate in a country, the more anti-European the results of national elections. The ageing of the population also contributes to the rise of anti-European sentiment, according to the aforementioned research. People are concerned by migration in the broadest sense of the word: foreign workers, foreign people, foreign cultures.

The next (ninth) EU parliamentary elections will soon be held. From the beginning of the Union, one of the central ideas in its development has involved direct parliamentary elections. The aim is to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU (throughout its evolution) and connect European citizens directly with the decision-making process.

The first direct elections to the European parliament were held in 1979, when 61.99% of eligible European citizens voted. Since then, turnout has decreased; it was 42.5% at the last elections, in 2014. The parliament isn’t as loved by European citizens as was hoped.

All Estonian candidates running for the European Parliament this year have loudly promised to defend Estonia’s interests. But herein lies a paradox.

As Vice-President of the European Commission, I spoke in many plenary meetings and parliamentary committees. The parliament’s type of institutional opposition to the member states always caught my attention—opposition against the member states as a whole, not each country individually. About one participant in three in the debate always said something mean about member states and the EU institutions (mostly the Commission) which couldn’t force the member states to do as the EU told them—as the European Parliament had set out.

In fact, this kind of opposition is not bad. The European Parliament outlines Europe-wide interests far better than the member states, which are involved with their individual concerns. Thanks to the European Parliament, Europe has made numerous decisions in the fields of environmental protection, human rights, safety and so on. These decisions would have been impossible or rather modest if they had been made by the Council at member-state level. It is thus MEPs that shape Europe-wide policies, not the agenda of individual member states.

In my opinion, parallelism or even the opposition between the parliament and the European Council is not going anywhere. It is characteristic and necessary for this Union. Ultimately, the EU won’t become a federal state; it will remain a community. Member states formed this Union and joined it; member states will tear it down if they want. The final decision will be made by the governments of the member states.

Estonia has become an EU member. Have we become Europeans? Where were we 15 years ago? Where are we now? Where was Europe then and where is it today?

Although we have nearly reached the EU average in terms of wealth, we still have some way to go.

Our connections with the major centres of Western Europe were and still are bad.

We still find it hard to identify with Europe, to finally realise that Europe’s shared interests are also ours.

The next five-year cycle in the EU lies ahead of us: new members of parliament, a new European Commission. The European Council is constantly renewed in line with national election results. Are we heading towards stronger cooperation or will everybody be out for their own benefit in the future? We’ll soon find out.


1 Taavi Minnik and Yulia Latynina: “kui oleksite impeeriumimeelsetele valimisõiguse andnud, valitseks teid Zjuganov”. Postimees, 27 April 2019.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.