Our values are more important than ever.
The President of Estonia says that we do not really know what is the new normal in international life, but values are more important than ever.
The very first Lennart Meri Conference in 2007 was titled “Remember the Future Europe”. What do you think, Mr President—could we use the same title again?
When we think about Europe in 2016, that is probably a much better title today than it was then. In 2007 it was quite clever, whereas now we can say that we seriously face the question of whether the future of Europe is ever more integrated, going beyond a borderless Europe and a common currency, and whether at this point all that is possible without more effort.
It is clear that Europe is in a very serious crisis right now, not because of its own institutions, but because of the re-nationalisation of European politics. This is, I would say, partly brought on by the refugee crisis, but this has not been the only issue. After all, even before the migration crisis we saw strong electoral success among nationalist, anti-European, and in some ways even anti-transatlantic parties, as in the case of the Front National [in France] or other parties elsewhere in Europe. So we see this broader rejection of Europe in many member states at the national level. Another example, of course, is UKIP. They were in the European Parliament when I was there ten years ago; they were elected in 2004.
The migration crisis has been used very effectively by these parties. Some of them have come onto the scene later, but also we see that old ideas—“old” meaning what existed long before the Greek crisis and really belongs to the past—are re-emerging unless we do something. I stress these are not the result of institutional failures of the European Union. The Greek crisis was brought on by the Greeks themselves.
So how do you fix Europe? For instance, five years ago the title of the Lennart Meri Conference was “Making Values Count”. How do you make values count?
Right now, I would argue that values are more important than ever, but in general we have got to the point where the mainstream, centrist, centre-left and centre-right parties are so afraid of being swept aside by a populist flood that they are already abandoning certain values, like the free movement of people, the Schengen zone. The approach to refugees, I suspect, will be problematic in the future, and some of the treaties we have on refugees will be reviewed. I am not saying that this is a good idea, rather that we are re-evaluating the basis of a new reality. The free movement of people is no longer a given. What plagues the European Union is its inability to find workable solutions to complex problems. You cannot have open borders within Europe without strong closed borders on the outside. By “closed” I don’t mean that nobody gets in, but you don’t just get in without [us] knowing who you are. You have to know everybody who comes into Europe; otherwise Europe will disintegrate. This is where I differ from all the people on the hard right who want to re-nationalise Europe. I think that a country like Estonia is sustainable as a country only within a broader union of like-minded states based on common values and enjoying a common currency, a common economy and free trade.
But for a country like mine to stand alone—this is delusional; this is how Estonia lost its independence in 1939–40. This kind of naive belief that if we declare ourselves neutral then we will be left alone. I don’t belong to that group of people who idealise everything Estonian before 1940. Certainly, foreign policy was a disaster, naive and silly. Rather, the solution is to make major changes to the way we do things in Europe and to be tough on those who break the rules.
If you don’t meet the Schengen criteria, you are out of Schengen. If you don’t meet the Maastricht criteria, you are out of the common currency. We cannot have this sloppy approach to things that it is OK and we turn a blind eye to breaking the rules. We cannot allow there to be countries in Europe that are warned about terrorism, even with concrete details of people, names and so on, and do nothing. These terrorists are in your own country, you do nothing and then they blow themselves up, as well as innocent people. The host of all the most important institutions in Europe, the EU and NATO, cannot allow such laxity—certainly not in the current security environment.
This year the conference is titled “Shaping the New Normal”. What do you understand by that? What does it mean, and does Estonia have a part in it?
We do not know what the new normal is. I think we are in media res.
So, we have to shape it?
But we do not know what the new normal will be. It is not about what we have to do, because it is a political decision made by all EU members, or often by QMV, but certainly we need to have a tougher approach to our borders (I am saying that a third time here). We need actually to stick to our values when it comes to things like aggression, the occupation of Crimea and Russia’s war against Ukraine [not the “Ukrainian crisis”—EB], where economic interests are throwing out of the window the foundations of the post-World War II security architecture. When I see people saying “economic relations are too important for us, we should ease the sanctions against Russia,” when we have had something we last saw with the Anschluss of Austria, then I ask: where are our values? Do we have any values in Europe when I see someone saying “we should back off from sanctions because it is bad for us”? OK, why do we have the European Union then? What is the point? If you give up the fundamental security assumptions, if you give up fundamental values, if you are willing to sell out countries for money, then how are we different from 1937, 1938 and 1939? In that case, I do not think we are.
Back to the conference. How possible is it to have a serious discussion on foreign and security policy in a country like Estonia?
The track record has not been too good. Outside of Diplomaatia, dilettantes and people with their own agenda argue on foreign-policy issues as if they were sitting around the bar drinking beer–which, of course, diplomats do, but they also think and read. People with a personal agenda often don’t discuss things analytically, they do not talk about issues, but rather about individuals. The subjectivisation of foreign policy in the discussion is really silly. In this country, a number of foreign-policy experts have actually come from the media. Harri Tiido, Marko Mihkelson, Jüri Luik, Kadri Liik—what is almost paradoxical is that you have people who are actually very good at foreign policy and highly respected, but in fact they are not in journalism anymore. They once were, but it was a kind of stepping stone.
Perhaps this is a more personal question, Mr President, but looking back at the conference, have you drawn any good ideas from it?
I have been at every conference except one—because of Eyjafjallajökull [the President pronounces the name correctly—EB]. I have gained some good ideas from the conference. I would also say that preparing for the conference is interesting; when I write, that is where I get my ideas, because I criticise myself. But, yes, over the years a lot of ideas.
One of the utopian ones I had was in 2011—the very optimistic notion that Turkey could serve as an example for those emerging from the Arab Spring as a mostly stable, secular, modern, Muslim-majority country. This has not happened. Instead what we see in much of the Middle East and North Africa and beyond is huge instability and massive bloodshed.
You have been in touch with international leaders, during the conference, and before and since, of course. Do you feel that the conference has some sort of influence on them, and how do they react to the ideas and discussions that they heard at the conference? Is it working—does the Lennart Meri Conference have any influence on international leaders?
Huge, I would say. Leave aside the closest friends like Carl Bildt, who has been dealing with our country for 25 years. Frankly, the leaders—and also foreign-policy experts—initially don’t know anything in particular about Estonia, only by reading second-hand accounts. And then they come here. It is one thing to read about Estonia, and another to see it work. Think of all the articles written over the last two years with the headline “Is Narva Next?”—they are not written by anyone who has been here.
Now the conference participants are going to Narva.
One person who came here was Matt Kaminski from The Wall Street Journal and he went to Narva. As soon as he took out his microphone, people were screaming “No, no, we don’t want to join Russia”.
That is the value of having people coming here over the years, of course, from SACEURs to foreign and defence ministers; they come here and see what it is like, not reading another article written by some silly person from some think tank in Washington who has never been to Estonia. People who don’t know anything about the economy draw typical conclusions: Ukraine = former Soviet Union; Estonia = former Soviet Union; this percentage of Russians, that percentage of Russians; “Is Narva Next?”. At the same time, the difference in GDP is so enormous; the Donbass is poorer than Russia, whereas we are so much richer than Russia that no one in Narva wants to join Russia. If you cross the river and come back, you are really glad that you are living in the European Union.
Some people have criticised the Lennart Meri Conference for being a kind of “Russia-haters’” conference. What would you say about that?
That is really silly—we have always had Russians here. I cannot remember a year when we did not have a panel of leading Russian intellectuals here. The problem, however, is that more and more of them come here from outside Russia because they don’t live in Russia anymore as life is too difficult for them there. Lilia Shevtsova and Andrei Soldatov were the only ones really left; and a regular participant almost every year was the late Boris Nemtsov.
If anything, the Lennart Meri Conference is a place where Russians all over the world, from Russia and from here, come together.
What next? Do you see a need to hold the conference in the future?
I hope so. I think that, for many people, it is firmly on their calendars. For instance, for me February is Munich month and April or May is Lennart Meri month. It is very clear.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.