The coalition agreement of the new Estonian government formed by the Reform Party and the Centre Party contains few surprises when comparing the foreign-, security- and defence-policy-related commitments with the agreements of the previous coalitions that formed the governments in 2016–19 and 2019–21.
Security and Defence
The agreement states that defence spending will remain at the level of existing development plans, which is encouraging given the negative macroeconomic effects of the pandemic. This only underscores the importance that national defence enjoys in Estonia given the current and foreseeable security environment.
The agreement confirms that the coalition partners intend to consolidate functions related to crisis preparedness in the Government Office, which means that the handling of civilian and military crises will be more harmonised. In the past, civilian crisis preparedness and management were the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), which oversees the Rescue Service and the Emergency Response Centre.
In recent years, coordination of national security and defence and ensuring preparations for national defence and effective governance of the state during both peace and wartime has been brought together in the Government Office. Today, elements of the legacy system led by the MoI co-exist with the new arrangement led by the Government Office, which coordinates activities across all ministries. This partial duplication of effort and blurred responsibility now appears to make way for greater clarity, which if implemented can only be welcomed.
Another noteworthy undertaking describes the strengthening of capabilities related to maritime surveillance and maritime defence by unifying command and control arrangements and improving information exchange. This commitment relates to insufficient national maritime situational awareness, which currently hampers Estonia’s contribution to NATO and needs to be addressed both by more effective use of existing national assets and by greater focus on strengthening maritime capabilities, in cooperation with neighbours and Allies.
A third noteworthy defence-related topic in the agreement is a decision that was taken by the previous government in late 2019 but that this coalition has decided to reiterate. This concerns the construction of wind farms in Estonia and at the same time compensating the Estonian Defence Forces for the negative effect these installations will have on air and sea surveillance by acquiring new radars previously not planned for.
A “Geopolitical” Commission: What Does That Mean?
In contrast to the conflicting attitudes towards the EU within the last government, led by Jüri Ratas, the new government headed by Kaja Kallas proudly emphasises its support for European integration and the EU. It is therefore understandable that there is an urge to sign up to the von der Leyen Commission’s commitments such as climate, digitalisation and—surprisingly—a “geopolitical” Commission.
The coalition agreement says: “We will prioritize a geopolitical European Union and support the strengthening of a common foreign and security policy of the European Union.”
This leads to the question: What does a geopolitical EU mean for the new government and for Estonia’s foreign policy? The answer is unclear.
“Geopolitical Commission” is a widely contested term. It is mixed up with the debate over European strategic autonomy, to which Estonia is strongly opposed. Until European governments seriously invest in defence capabilities, any abstract talk about autonomy, geopolitics or related issues is greeted with scepticism.
The EU is attempting to pursue a third way in foreign policy alongside China and the US. Does Estonia agree with that direction?
There is no consensus on what Estonia’s foreign-policy orientation should be. There is a strong gut feeling and policy practice towards the US, while the EU is seen primarily as an economic actor. There is a growing group of people advocating greater engagement with the EU in other policy areas in the light of Washington’s growing focus on Asia and its changing role in the world. Nevertheless, the transatlantic instinct dominates.
Thus, the declaration prioritising a geopolitical Commission sounds hollow. Tallinn should do its homework first and think through what the term means, how thinking in Tallinn and Brussels differs, and what are the opportunities in and limits of such goals.
Traditionally, Estonian foreign and security policy is not made by one government; it is a broad consensus among officials, diplomats, the military and the political establishment. Indeed, the last government broke with this tradition and it is to be seen whether Kallas’s government will follow this behaviour. This will probably not be the case.
As supporters of a geopolitical EU, what is Estonia’s position going to be towards the EU-China Agreement on Investment? Or Nord Stream 2? These are the pressing geopolitical dilemmas that Estonia finds itself facing as a member of the EU and a strong supporter of the US and transatlantic relations.
Blindly signing up to the European Commission’s pledges may put Estonia in an awkward position in the future. Pledging to support the EU in its foreign-policy quests and then in reality still following Washington makes Estonia look shallow and full of empty promises.
In Estonia, a national sigh of relief has taken place. Irrespective of political leanings, the superficially created volatile political atmosphere is likely to be put on hold for a few weeks at least, and hopefully for longer.
The key tenets of Estonia’s foreign and security policy will continue. The fact that the new government is formed by the Reform Party and the Centre Party should ensure continuity with all previous governments since regaining independence 30 years ago up to 2019, and it reconfirms the importance to Estonia of the EU, NATO and transatlantic relations as well as the need for closer cooperation.
While practical steps to put meat on the bone in the defence field can be foreseen, in foreign affairs abstract discussions and pledges are yet to become clear policy steps.
To this end, the new government may consider revising the National Security Concept, which dates from 2017.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).