Estonia’s ambassador to the EU speaks to Diplomaatia about myths about the European Union and explores its inner workings.
Journalist Toomas Sildam of ERR News, the English-language service of Estonian Public Broadcasting, put together a set of Eurosceptic questions and called Brussels. Ambassador Kaja Tael, Estonia’s Permanent Representative to the EU, was willing to sacrifice an hour of her busy schedule to answer them.
Sildam: The EU came into being as a peace project. These days, it is hard to imagine Germany going to war with France as it did on two occasions in the early 20th century. Why do we need the EU in the 21st century?
Tael: This is an extremely fundamental question, which I will try to answer as briefly as possible. The project of ensuring stability and peace has not lost its importance. Even though we cannot imagine Germany attacking France, the Balkan wars are a relatively recent reality. The peaceful coexistence of countries, especially in our neighbourhood, is still part of the European project.
However, the best way to cope in today’s economic model is certainly a central question. For years, we talked about building the EU internal market, so that Estonian businesses could market their goods more easily, even in Latvia. This would not be self-explanatory if it were not for the EU. However, the performance of our major trading partners—Sweden and through it Germany—in the global market is currently even more important. In this, the EU as a whole is considerably stronger than any individual member state. I would like to add a third reason, personal fulfilment—the opportunity to study any subject and have a career in that field. The EU stands for all of this.
Is the EU now an association that looks after the well-being of European citizens?
The protection of fundamental rights is certainly a big part of the nature of the EU and representing fundamental rights can be interpreted as looking after citizens’ well-being.
How strong is the EU?
There are different answers to that, depending on the point of view and the field.
How does an Estonian ambassador see it?
Again, there are several answers. In economic terms the EU is very strong. It is one of the most powerful trading blocs in the world, bringing together 500 million people.
In the military sense, which is certainly relevant to some countries, the EU relies heavily on NATO. A large number of its member states are in both the EU and NATO, and the EU has not considered it necessary to build its own duplicate defence structure. Consequently, the EU is not seen as a military power at first glance.
However, if we look at how it stands for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the EU is on solid ground in the context of, for instance, internet freedom and similar tangible examples.
Is today’s EU a union of nation-states or a federal state?
It is neither, which makes things complicated and generates a lot of myths. The EU is a complex formation, which cannot rightly be called an organisation. It is unique in the world. One thing is certain—it is not a federal state, because all of its member states have maintained their sovereignty.
If we are talking about EU laws, which are often feared and hated by people, we need to understand that they do not generally regulate any national issues, be it the organisation of court proceedings, school curricula or national tax policies.
The EU is certainly a body of sovereign states, which have reduced their sovereignty a little to be stronger together.
Is the EU becoming a federal state?
This question is not very relevant at the moment. Throughout the history of the EU, these disputes have sometimes been quite heated and there have been many debates on the topic. Based on the facts, it can be said that the EU is not a federation and is not becoming one.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the EU is changing. It changes every day according to changes in the conditions that surround us and the economic reality. A good example of this is the ongoing initiative of taxing large digital companies. This question was raised in relation to digitalisation and has changed our bases for and views on taxation. We are currently trying to find a solution for handling digital companies in the future. This is not the action of a federation, but an example of life making us address a new challenge.
The same can be said about the second major issue—the migration crisis, when the EU faced very large flows of migrants from Syria and Africa. The fact that we defend ourselves collectively does not mean we are turning into a federation.
What do you think when you hear the expression “a stronger and more integrated European Union”?
Looking at the economy, our internal market is one of the most important accomplishments of European countries working as well as possible and seamlessly. In theory, this should have been the case long ago, but in practice we still experience market failures. The internal market is a good example of coherence.
When it comes to strength, we need to protect our external borders better and this is what the EU is doing. Soon, the EU will have its own border guard corps in addition to national border controls, which can help the member states. This is the EU’s strength. We can also point to certain progress made in defence cooperation.
Has the sovereignty of member states decreased and disproportionate power been concentrated in the hands of EU institutions?
This is something that we need to watch out for every day. In itself it is natural that we curb our sovereignty to a certain degree, as this was a precondition of joining the EU. The Union would simply not exist if we did not do that. Nevertheless, all member states work here in Brussels to prevent it from disproportionately spreading into fields that are in national jurisdiction; every legislative initiative is tested for possible conflicts with areas of national competence. Generally, we have been quite successful in avoiding such intrusions.
Can you give any examples?
None of us likes excessive bureaucracy and regulation. At some point, more than a decade ago, the EU realised that there was no need to regulate every single thing by law, especially across borders.
A good example is the maternity leave directive, which was not adopted. There are many such examples and we have decided to restrict the proliferation of legislation and engage in reasonable regulation. We have repealed several legislative initiatives because they were collectively found to be superfluous.
However, if we go into detail, I spent two hours today discussing whether the initiative relating to national proceedings of class actions is proportionate and how far it should be taken. This is just a taste of our day-to-day work in the capital of the EU.
Do you understand people’s desire for their countries’ sovereignty and decision-making powers to remain in their capitals—or, rather, their fear that they will not?
Of course I understand. This was also expressed in the way the majority of people voted for Estonia’s accession to the EU [in the referendum of September 2003] after a level-headed debate. However, it was 66.8% in favour, not 80% or 90%, which confirmed that Estonians spent a lot of time weighing their options and demonstrating that sovereignty is dear to us, and we have to be careful not to give it up.
I cannot recall any instances during our 15 years in the EU when Estonia should have felt like a loser. The EU has not let us down in any way. Although we have always had clear national differences and special interests—for example, in the regulation of oil-shale chemistry—we have always found solutions that have suited us as well as other member states. I do not see any reason to be disappointed, but I guess we are going to continue walking the path we have chosen—trying to keep things in balance.
Does Estonia’s presence at discussions and meetings in Brussels mean making decisions or simply being in attendance?
There is no doubt how to answer this question—naturally it means decision-making. The opposite is unthinkable.
On the other hand, not all EU topics are directly or closely related to Estonia. For instance, if we are discussing the export of olive oil, it is clear that our approach is going to be more reserved. However, some fundamental trade questions and the organisation of free trade agreements are just as close to our heart as to anyone else’s.
What are Estonia’s national interests in the EU?
Stability. Wealth. Increasing people’s well-being.
Since the entire EU works towards these and thus represents our national interests well, I would rather talk about Estonia’s special interests. For instance, shale oil, because we are the only country to extract it. Estonian government officials work to make our special interests sufficiently clear to others and we hope that we reach a compromise.
To some extent we can also talk about the free movement of data as being Estonia’s special interest, as Estonia is well ahead of many member states when it comes to digital document management. This is a good example of us representing the interests of the whole EU. Estonia does not want to organise electronic document management just on its own territory, but we would like the entire EU to go along with it and in this Estonia is a leader, a forerunner. It is not our special interest; on the contrary, it is in the interests of the whole EU.
How safe are the Estonian language and culture in the EU?
The EU poses no threat to Estonia’s language and culture. The fear of our being forced to conduct our affairs in foreign languages is completely unfounded. All the EU institutions provide translation, all EU legislative acts are translated into Estonian and you can speak Estonian during debates at the European Parliament. It’s rather a matter of protecting them ourselves. I do not think everything is well with the Estonian language, but the threat certainly does not come from the EU.
But ministers of member states and members of the European Parliament should speak at least good colloquial English?
Yes, of course, if they want to communicate with their colleagues directly and without an interpreter and understand the need for lobbying and corridor conversations. The first steps towards important agreements are taken in informal environments like these.
Is Brexit a sign of a crisis in the EU?
Brexit symbolises a crisis in the United Kingdom. It may have been triggered by the EU migration crisis and the organisation of border controls and immigration. However, it should be clear to everyone by now that the main question is how the British themselves want to organise their lives. We have arrived at a point where the EU is not the culprit but nor can it offer them much assistance.
What do you think of the idea of electing members of the European Parliament in a way that ensures equal representation for all member states?
If this happened the European Parliament would be comparable to the upper houses of many national parliaments. But countries that have upper houses always have lower houses too, whose members are elected on the basis of the population of states, counties or other administrative units.
In the Estonian Parliament, Tallinn and Harju County have considerably more representatives than Hiiu, Võru and Põlva counties or the city of Tartu, and this depends specifically on the population.
It is a common principle of the right of representation to look at how many voters support someone. The EU pays close attention to this—if a large number of decisions are made by majority vote, the question is not only the number of member states that vote for or against them but also the population of those countries. Such questions are difficult to resolve by a hatchet job, for example by electing ten people from each member state to the European Parliament and Bob’s your uncle.
To what extent are recent talks about the EU’s defence policy driven by the slogan “America first!” coined on the other side of the Atlantic?
This question almost seems to hide another: whether we see the US as our partner anymore or as a threat. The latter is certainly not true. We cooperate with the US to a great degree and the EU’s security relies heavily on NATO. Future developments in EU defence policy cannot be reduced to the US currently having a government that is a bit different from what we are used to.
Will President Trump push Europe into coming together and becoming more independent?
Indeed. One of President Trump’s ideas is that the EU should take more responsibility. As a member of NATO, Estonia is glad that the debate over responsibility is being taken more seriously in the Alliance. The EU having to grow up and become more accountable is not a bad thing—especially in its back yard.
I see the progress made in the EU’s defence policy as a natural development in a group of countries that cooperate in many other fields and in which defence policy used to be a secondary issue. At the same time, the defence industry is linked to the EU’s internal market and competition policy, and cannot be isolated from the rest of our economy.
But a European army will still remain the stuff of fantasy?
A European army is one of the myths that we need to debunk now and again. NATO does not have its own army either. Rather, there are the armed forces of nation-states that cooperate under a treaty. The idea of a single European army is rather inappropriate, unlike the wish for the armies of European countries to be more capable and cooperative.
Some people warn that Europe is increasingly overshadowed by the US, China and countries hitherto called the Third World. Are they wrong?
This is an existential question for the EU itself. We began by talking about the EU as a powerful economic bloc, but this economic power will not last long if we cannot communicate with other large blocs or great countries, such as the US and China, as equals. Our being serious players is certainly in the EU’s interests. Of course, I’m talking about economic power; the EU does not have any imperialist goals, nor should it.
I am reminded of Henrik Hololei, Director-General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, who told Estonian Public Broadcasting last year that “a strong Europe does not follow the principle of ‘divide and conquer’, which is why such partners [as Trump and Putin] would be happy to see the European Union fade away”. Is this the best recognition of the existence of and need for the EU?
We should not be too preoccupied with what [Russian president] Putin or even the president of the US thinks. The reasons the EU exists lie within Europe itself. The best recognition of the EU comes from its citizens. That’s why I am glad that support for the EU is so high in Estonia.
More than 70%.
It is indeed quite remarkable.
What did you think when you read French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European renaissance at the beginning of March?
It’s always interesting to read Macron’s ideas. He is one of the most dynamic leaders in Europe today. I always appreciate his lively and fresh ideas. Whether Europe needs a renaissance is a philosophical question. I think we are in pretty good shape.
Macron called for rules to fight hate speech, but also an agency to protect European democracies, which would help to prevent cyber-attacks against elections, and a ban on foreign funding of political parties. How likely are member states to agree on anything like this?
This is no utopia. These are everyday activities. I cannot say whether we are moving towards the establishment of a new agency, but the EU already has institutions that are called on and assigned to fight cybercrime. This is certainly a task that has to be taken very seriously.
To what extent does immigration threaten European identity and values?
Well, as far as European values are concerned, we do not have anything to fear from immigrants. European values will only crumble if we ourselves give them up. However, we are very, very clear that those who come to Europe must share our values. We won’t back down on this.
Opponents would tell you that many immigrants do not share European values at all.
This certainly poses a challenge to Europe. Even if people come from an entirely different culture, it does not mean that they become a threat to our values. In very general terms, I believe that there is a limit to immigration beyond which integration into society will no longer work, but I do not believe Europe has reached it.
Why did the EU make the biggest mistake in recent years by granting the Commission’s wish to establish mandatory refugee quotas for its member states, i.e. how many refugees each country has to accept?
Why the European Commission did that … It was probably a misjudgement of what can and cannot be done in member states. Admittedly, the Commission had not realised how much the EU had changed after the last enlargement. Let’s be honest, quotas were not much of a problem in the so-called “old” European Union.
Where did they become a problem?
We know exactly where—mainly in the Visegrád countries, particularly Poland and Hungary, which opposed the quotas most fiercely.
How will the EU cope with such a change?
Through day-to-day work. Almost four years have passed since the migration crisis; it was a real challenge. But we have not broken up—aside from Brexit, which cannot be linked to immigration quotas alone.
Once it was clear that mandatory quotas were unacceptable to some countries and we could not continue using them because the EU is not an organisation that uses force; we have been dealing mainly with the root causes of immigration and border control. Migration flows are now clearly under control and, even though we have not agreed on how to redistribute refugees in the future, the refugee flows have decreased significantly.
What is the EU’s migration policy going to look like?
The current signs suggest that there will be a lot of emphasis on cooperation with third countries to eliminate or at least mitigate the root causes of migration and improve the regulation of legal immigration.
Another big point is the defence of the EU’s external border, followed by refugee policy within the EU.
The international conventions that we have joined acknowledge the obligation to accept refugees—here, we need to look at how EU solidarity is going to be expressed. Solidarity is a must and we cannot escape it—this is also laid out in the Union’s founding treaties. Thus, if a member state finds itself under great pressure due to a nearby military conflict or a natural disaster, the EU must show solidarity towards it. We are still discussing how this is going to be expressed. It is clear that we will not redistribute refugees solely on the basis of quotas.
A large number of refugees accepted by Estonia have now left the country. Should we be prepared to take them back?
We are certainly ready to accept them again, if someone wants to send them back. There is no question. The problem is that most of them have left for countries where they have their own communities or relatives and they simply spread out in these communities. Germany or Sweden do not have the administrative capacity to begin looking for them and sending them back to Estonia.
This is a very serious picture, which shows that the EU has no control over those who come here or their movement.
Yes, this problem is called secondary migration, which is not unique to Estonia. That is to say, refugees arrive somewhere where they feel uncomfortable and it is very likely that, in a situation of free movement, they want to travel on to another member state, for which it will become a big problem. We are still discussing exactly how to tackle it and what to do.
The Schengen common visa area means an obligation of responsibility (strict border control) and solidarity (shared asylum policy). What will happen to Schengen? Will it change?
Yes, that is highly probable and a serious threat to not only the free movement of people but also the general operation of the EU. This is why we have paid so much attention to the defence of our external borders, because closing internal borders is directly linked to a situation in which external borders do not work.
We hope to become increasingly successful in defending our external borders and also when managing immigrants. During the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we put forward proposals on how to organise information systems and make them more interoperable.
In a word, if we are successful in defending our external borders, we don’t have to close internal borders?
Yes, that is the idea.
Ahead of the elections to the European Parliament, we are once again hearing calls to end the long-standing unfair treatment of member states, particularly in the allocation of agricultural benefits. How do you respond to this?
There is no doubt that this has to end. We talk about this in the EU on a daily basis. However, as with many things, we do not immediately achieve a 100% result. Instead, we move towards more equal treatment, step by step.
What would equal treatment mean for Estonian farmers?
Our dream is to obtain a guarantee on adopting a new budget in which Estonian agricultural benefits will not be lower than the EU average, but the details are still to be finalised.
I have also read that EU enlargement is regarded as an invaluable benefit to longer-standing member states, as they gain millions of people for their workforces, which has caused irreparable damage to newer member states. How can you argue against that?
New member states [like Estonia] also admit that they have made a valuable contribution to the development of the EU in the form of our best sons and daughters moving to other member states looking for jobs and better salaries, but we hope that they come back home.
But until then Estonian homes and villages remain empty.
Such migration has its problems, and this is certainly a concern for many member states. Estonia’s situation is slightly better than that of our neighbours.
However, this is not only an issue between new and old member states. A well-known example is the migration of doctors in Europe, with Swedish doctors moving to Norway and German doctors to Switzerland—all in the pursuit of better living and working conditions. This is one part of economic circulation: empty spaces are usually filled quickly and the gap left by the resource drain is filled by immigrants from another country. Naturally, every country is very interested in the eventual return of those who left for other countries, bringing their rich life and work experiences back with them. We also need to fight for this.
Why are European radical populists successful and why do they continue to gain favour among voters in several countries?
It is clear that the political landscape is changing, and we are seeing new parties. However, it would be an exaggeration to say that they are all populists. Nevertheless, we can see that voters are not satisfied with the traditional range, and old parties are being supplemented by parties of protest, representatives of a more radical direction, and populists. Why is this happening? Traditional parties should look in the mirror and ask themselves how they have managed to become so distant from people that they are losing their own voters.
By populists I meant short and simplified slogans that appeal to voters and serve as a basis for the voting behaviour of many people.
Simple slogans can win an election, but whether the winners can remain in power is a very different question. These slogans must be supported by specific policy, economic policy, and then people can see whether or not the slogans can become reality.
I sometimes feel that people misunderstand the EU. Am I right?
Yes and no. When I look at the huge support for the EU in Estonia, I see that people have understood its essential nature—the EU has brought us greater stability and a better quality of life in general and given better personal opportunities to many people. It has equipped many communities with clean drinking water or wastewater systems and new roads. However, if we are talking about people not completely understanding what is legally regulated at the EU and national level, or the minor nuances of some European law, then I think it’s quite natural. Not all Estonian citizens are up to date with all the details of laws adopted by the Estonian parliament. These things must certainly be explained better.
Still, there are a lot of lies, scaremongering and fabrications about the EU in the public space.
I cannot agree with this. My public space does not include many lies.
So Henrik Hololei was wrong when he said last year that we are living in a golden age of unenlightened politics where those who shout the loudest and say the worst things become the most popular?
Let’s look at Estonia’s election results. The parliamentary elections were won by the Reform Party. I wouldn’t say that they were the loudest and said the worst things.
Bravo! Hololei also said that believing that EU decisions don’t need to be explained shows disregard towards your people. Are governments struggling with this?
Yes, definitely. This was the basis for my argument that we should explain more and better. In this respect, I would also lay some blame on journalism—journalists should ask more questions.
Very many member states have large and powerful groups of journalists in Brussels, several of whom have been working on a specific topic for decades and know more about certain financial questions than some officials here. If they ask constructive questions at press conferences, people will learn more about what is going on in the EU and possible threats. The fourth estate, even in Estonia, should be interested in the group of countries that influence our daily life the most.
Estonian National Broadcasting posted the matter-of-fact Epp Ehand to Brussels, and he sends reports about the EU almost every evening.
Yes, indeed. It is very commendable that Estonia has had this correspondent here for several years. There is room for others, too.
President Lennart Meri, under whom you served as a foreign affairs adviser, asked in 2003: “What can we bring to the European Union? What is the Estonian experience that could interest the European Union? What is Estonia’s self-assertion strategy in the European Union?” How would you reply to Lennart Meri now, 16 years later?
If we begin with the self-assertion strategy, then this has been a success; it is our success story. Estonia is a significant contributor to the EU and stronger than others in some things—and it is not rocket science to figure out that I mean the digital sector. However, when we joined the EU we were only taking our first steps and perhaps did not recognise our own strengths.
Today, I would define our strength as follows: we have a great capacity to learn and Estonia has managed to create quite a stable culture of trust in the state, regardless of who is in government. Estonians have brought to Europe a certain confidence and a perception that the future will be better than the present. This is no small thing in the EU.