March 18, 2024

Estonia’s Leadership in the EU – and Its Limits

France's President Emmanuel Macron greets Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas as she arrives at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, on February 26, 2024, to take part in an international conference aimed at strengthening Western support for Ukraine.
France's President Emmanuel Macron greets Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas as she arrives at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, on February 26, 2024, to take part in an international conference aimed at strengthening Western support for Ukraine.

Until 24 February 2022, the leaders of Germany and France were convinced that Europe could and should manage its relationship with Russia through more diplomacy, not more arms. However, their shuttle diplomacy to the Kremlin failed to prevent war. In the new geopolitical reality created by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both of these countries and the EU as a whole have significantly changed their approach to European security and defence. The time for diplomacy will eventually return, but it is now well understood that Europe needs far more arms to be able to defend itself against the long-term Russian threat.

The shock of large-scale war returning to Europe created an acute need for fresh leadership. Although Chancellor Olaf Scholz was quick to declare a Zeitenwende (“tectonic shift”), the actual response of Berlin and Paris was too slow to keep up with events unfolding on the Ukrainian battlefields – events that would shape nothing less than the future of the European order. As has so often been the case in recent history, the US – which spearheaded and coordinated Western aid to Ukraine – took the leading role in looking after European security.

At the same time, however, the EU emerged as a surprisingly strong geopolitical actor. Its unprecedented sanctions against Russia and assistance to Ukraine, including military support, were led not by Germany and France but by eastern and northern member states, including my own country, Estonia. Times of international turbulence can provide opportunities for small-state leadership, which Estonia was keen to grasp, not least because Russia posed an existential threat not only to Ukraine but also to its other neighbours.

Because Estonia’s warnings about Russian aggression turned out to be correct, Estonia gained credibility in European debates and decision-making. Estonia became engaged in shaping the narrative, setting the agenda and orchestrating the policies of the EU in response to the full-scale war. It not only built coalitions with its like-minded Baltic neighbours, the Nordic countries and Poland but also put pressure on Germany and other Western European nations to do more. On several issues, such as military aid to Ukraine, sanctioning Russia and shedding light on war crimes, Estonia led by example. It took concrete initiatives such as setting a price cap on Russian oil exports, providing Ukraine with 1 million shells through an EU joint procurement and finding ways to utilise frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine. It also played a role in advancing Ukraine’s path towards EU membership. In 2022, Estonia probably gained more international attention than at any other point in its history. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in particular was continuously in the limelight, urging partners and allies to do more to support Ukraine and make Russia pay a price for its aggression.

However, small-state leadership in the EU has its limits. Size matters, and so do resources. Other states need to follow, especially the big ones. Germany has been doing precisely that throughout the war – following others, often reluctantly, while failing to provide the leadership that was actually expected of it. France has charted a different trajectory. In the initial months of the war, it was slow to adapt and seemed to be looking for a quick way out; President Emmanuel Macron infuriated his Central and Eastern European allies with his calls to avoid humiliating Putin. More recently, France seems to have recognised the depth and long-lasting nature of geopolitical change in Europe. Indeed, if France wishes to play a leading role in European security – as it undoubtedly does – it needs to show a long-term commitment to defeating Russia in Ukraine and building a sustainable peace.

In the new geopolitical reality, the long-term French priority of European strategic autonomy is gaining new substance and gravity. Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, the French-led debate on strategic autonomy disregarded the issue of the Russian threat to European security. This discredited the discourse and even made it dangerous in the eyes of the Central and Eastern European countries that viewed Russia as an imminent threat. Now the threat perceptions among European countries are much more aligned, while the future commitment of the US to European security looks increasingly unpredictable. Yet Franco-German leadership is lacking; what we are seeing instead from the two countries is public discord. If France and Germany fail to take leadership in a manner that keeps Europeans unified and dedicated to strengthening the continent’s security, the coming years are likely to see Europe become fragmented, unstable and globally irrelevant.

This commentary was originally published in the German-French journal dokdoc in German and French.

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