The presidencies of smaller countries are more successful than the large ones.
In a few weeks, Estonia will be taking over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I have seen many Presidencies in my time, and have been involved in five directly. I know that the Presidencies of smaller countries are by far more successful than those of big countries. Small is big when it comes to forging compromises. That is why I am convinced that Estonia will deliver.
The times are certainly challenging. But I think there are reasons to be positive about the direction the European Union is headed in, and the work that Estonia can do to drive it further.
The European economy is recovering
Firstly, a huge positive factor is that Europe is finally recovering from the global economic crisis. The European economy has entered its fifth year of recovery — something that has now reached all EU Member States. This is expected to continue in the coming years with 1.9% GDP growth in 2018. Unemployment levels continue their downward trajectory and are forecast to be at 7.7% in 2018. Though still too high, that is the lowest level since 2009. And on top of that, the EU economy has reached the point where it outperformed the United States in the 1st quarter of 2017. That is not down to luck. It is a result of structural reforms, careful management and other policies that enable robust job creation and increase demand. Jobs, growth and investment have been — and will remain — the first priority of my Commission.
Delivering on our promises
Secondly, we are advancing at full speed to deliver what we promised back in 2014. It’s only half time for the Juncker Commission but we have already delivered two thirds — over 70% — of what we promised at the beginning of our mandate, always working hand in hand with the European Parliament and the Council. The Juncker Plan is up and running and has already mobilised €194 billion in investments, helping to create at least 200,000 jobs in 28 Member States. Estonia is one of the frontrunners when it comes to exploiting the opportunities that the Plan has created. Approved operations in Estonia under the European Fund for Strategic Investments are expected to trigger more than €635 million in investments. The Juncker Plan backed for example a €30 million agreement with Tallinn Airport to finance expansion and modernisation works. The project will help improve environmental and safety performance, alleviate current congestion and ensure passenger and air traffic grows further.
We have also set up a European Border and Coast Guard to help us better collectively protect our common borders. A rapid reserve pool of at least 1500 agents is ready to be deployed to lend a helping hand to the 100,000 national border guards. 63 Estonians are with the Border and Coast Guard at the moment, helping to make it a crucial component of our migration policy. Another essential element is our effort to address the root causes of irregular migration and the introduction of the principle of solidarity into our common asylum system.
At the same time, we have continued to look out to the world. Our trade agreement with Canada is our most ambitious and progressive deal ever. It will create jobs and ensure that our standards and principles are fully respected. More than 90 companies in Estonia export to Canada and more than 1,000 jobs will be supported by this new agreement.
United at 27
Meanwhile a new challenge has come to the fore, with the decision by one Member State to leave the European Union. The decision of the British people in the referendum was a sad moment for us all, and one which we regret. But in a democracy you have to respect the wish of the people. The silver lining is that EU Member States have shown remarkable unity in handling the Brexit process. At the end of April, EU leaders took only four minutes to agree the guidelines for the Brexit negotiations. I have attended more Summits than I care to remember and never have I seen agreement be reached so quickly. This does not happen by accident. It is testimony to the work done together by all Member States, the European institutions and our excellent chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. He and his team have been preparing meticulously and touring all EU Member States to make sure every voice is heard. Michel Barnier has already visited Tallinn twice, consulting with government and social partners alike.
Unity and transparency are our guiding principles. These talks cannot be held behind closed doors, when so many people will be directly affected by them. When it comes to futures and livelihoods we need to provide the certainty that people need — not least to the 10,000 Estonians living in the UK, or the 600 UK citizens living in Estonia.
This is not something, however, that should overly occupy the Estonian presidency. With the Brexit negotiations in the hands of our capable divorce lawyers, the EU27 needs to look forward and move on with the same unity and shared sense of purpose to implement the positive agenda we all signed up with the Rome Declaration.
The Estonian drive
The Estonian Presidency will be crucial in making this happen. Europe has always been about building bridges, finding solutions and seeking consensus. That is what this Commission has always sought to do and this will be equally important for a successful Estonian Presidency.
I do not remember a country being so well prepared — especially when the Presidency was moved forward by six months due to Brexit. There are three areas where Estonia will have the opportunity to drive the European Union forward — the digital single market, migration and defence cooperation.
I said in early May after the joint College-Estonian Government meeting in Brussels that the biggest gift Estonia can make to Europe is digital. Digital is in Estonia’s DNA and it now needs to become part of Europe’s. When it comes to building a genuine digital single market, we have already put all 35 of our announced proposals on the table. However, some of them still have to be brought home. For this we need a Presidency with an authority in the field and a proven track record and “e-xpertise” in delivering digital solutions. Under the Estonian Presidency, I would like to see agreement on key proposals on preventing geo-blocking, e-privacy, modernising copyright rules and ensuring free wifi-access for all.
In the field of migration too, we have made real progress but we have a lot more to do. Crucial proposals for developing a fair, efficient and sustainable asylum system remain on the table. It is a sensitive file where the interests of Member States differ, but this is nothing new in Europe. The previous Presidencies, Slovakia and Malta, are very different, but they worked together to design the elements of a solution. Now it is for Estonia to take up the baton. No less important are the proposals we made to ensure better internal security. A lot of this work relates to developing databases that seamlessly work together so that information can easily be exchanged — an area where Estonia is particularly advanced domestically.
And finally, I expect the Estonian Presidency to throw its weight behind the Commission’s proposals to strengthen defence cooperation at European level. The Commission set out in a reflection paper its ideas on how this can be done, including the setting up of a fully-fledged European Security and Defence Union. I would like to see Estonia contribute to a lively debate of the future of our defence policy. The Commission also backed up ideas with concrete legislative proposals for a European Defence Fund that can help jointly develop and acquire drones or satellite communication systems. We need to invest more together, and invest in a more efficient way. We spend €200 billion on defence but we only have 15% of the Americans’ efficiency. This is because we have too many overlaps and not enough interoperability. Today, there are 178 different weapon systems in the EU, compared to 30 in the United States. Member States could save around €30 billion a year by sharing vehicles, standardising ammunition and finally conducting research together instead of apart. I would like to see the Commission’s proposals swiftly adopted, with much of the work advanced during the Estonian presidency.
I know that Estonia has it in her to achieve this and much, much more. These are areas where Europe can make a real difference, areas that matter most to Europeans.
Europe is the greatest continent in the world to live in. To be born in post-war Europe, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, is to have won the lottery of life. It is our duty now to defend that legacy and improve on it for our grandchildren. Estonia, I know, will lead the charge.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.