April 29, 2024

Having doubts about the value of EU enlargement? Look at Estonia!

Estonian Foreign Ministry
Europe day celebrations 2023.
Europe day celebrations 2023.

When Estonia together with nine other countries joined the EU twenty years ago, there was no talk about a geopolitical enlargement. The most important goals of the “big bang” enlargement were to consolidate democracy and enhance prosperity and stability in the so-called post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Their parallel accession to NATO provided them with security guarantees, but the dominant view in the Euro-Atlantic community was that European states did not face any direct military threat.

Have We Achieved Our Goals?

Estonia is one of the brightest examples of EU membership actually having a major positive impact. The country ranks high in global comparative assessments of democracy and the rule of law. Democracy Index 2023 put it 27th in the world[1], ahead of many member states including Italy, Belgium, and most Central and Eastern European countries. It was 9th in the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project[2] and 8th in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders[3].

The country’s GDP has experienced impressive growth. Before EU accession in 2004, Estonia was at the level of 48% of the average of 15 member states. By 2023, it had reached 85% of the average of EU27.[4] As Estonia has been moving closer to the EU average, it is ready to become a net payer in future, possibly after Ukraine’s accession if not sooner.[5] Many Estonians see this as an achievement to be proud of, although of course, every member state seeks to keep its benefits, received from the EU budget, as high as possible, and Estonia is no exception.

Estonia has done pretty well in influencing EU decision-making: it ranks 12th in the EU Coalition Explorer compiled by the European Council on Foreign Relations.[6] This is a rather good performance, considering the country’s small size and limited resources. Moreover, that assessment had been made before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine which increased Estonia’s visibility and influence to unprecedented levels.[7]

Unfortunately, not all countries that joined the EU in 2004 serve as positive examples to tell. Estonia’s experience cannot be copy-pasted to other new or future member states. The effects of EU accession are intertwined with domestic conditions and national efforts to make the best of the political and economic opportunities that EU membership provides. The EU is a major enabling factor. As the case of Hungary gliding back to semi-authoritarian rule suggests, the progress of democratic consolidation is not irreversible. It cannot necessarily be secured by tougher conditionality on candidate countries, and there was no doubt Hungary met the accession criteria in 2004. Even old democracies are not immune to degradation, as evidenced by the weakening quality of democracy in the US. Democracy and the rule of law need to be constantly guarded and reproduced.

Geopolitics is Back

In spite of some setbacks, the overall contribution of enlargement to stability and prosperity in Central and Eastern Europe has been indispensable. For Estonia, accession to the EU and NATO has always been about geopolitics, although the term was unpopular at the time. It was a choice between securing democracy, freedom, and sovereignty as a full-fledged member of western structures or being dominated by the then semi-authoritarian and aggressive (recall the wars in Chechnya) former occupier.

The Baltic states learned throughout the 1990s and early 2000s that Russia was not keen to let go of its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. In the early 1990s, it tried to create a separatist enclave in North-East Estonia, similar to the Transnistrian region in Moldova. Russia withdrew its troops from Estonia in 1994 only thanks to friendly western pressure. Later on, Moscow constantly tried to instrumentalise the issue of Russian-speaking minorities to blackmail the Baltic states in the west and put obstacles to their EU membership. A few years after Estonia’s accession to the EU and NATO, the country experienced massive cyberattacks originating from Russia in the so-called Bronze Soldier crisis. At the same time, Russia was sliding back to authoritarian rule, having never got very far with the democratisation process.

Today, Ukraine is facing a similar choice, albeit in a far more dramatic shape, between integration into the west or domination by Russia. Following the shock of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU has embarked on a geopolitical enlargement and entered a fight over the future of the European security order. Thanks to its membership in the EU and NATO, Estonia has been able to take the role of a frontrunner in mobilising western support to Ukraine’s war effort and working for a sustainable pushback against Russia’s imperialist aggression.

Had Estonia missed the window of opportunity twenty years ago, it would likely be grappling with a direct threat to its existence and sovereignty today, or worse. Estonia enjoys the level of freedom, security, and welfare that those Eastern European countries that do not (yet) belong to the EU and NATO can — and do — only dream about. It is Estonia’s historical responsibility as well as its self-interest to support the aspirations of Ukraine and other candidate countries to reach that dream.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

[1] Democracy-Index-2023-Final-report-11-15.pdf (d1qqtien6gys07.cloudfront.net)

[2] WJP Rule of Law Index | Global Insights (worldjusticeproject.org)

[3] Index | RSF

[4] Karin Kondor-Tabun, „Eesti toetused ELi eelarvest ja sissemaksed ELi eelarvesse“, ICDS Report, forthcoming.

[5] No Gain Without Pain: Estonia’s Views on EU Enlargement – ICDS

[6] Estonia’s Partners in the EU Coalition Machinery: Maximising Influence in the EU through Coalition-building – ICDS

[7] Estonia’s Leadership in the EU – and Its Limits – ICDS

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