November 20, 2018

UN Compact and Foreign Policy Sour Grapes

While the UN Global Compact on Migration has very limited direct relevance for Estonia, a refusal to endorse it would undermine the country’s reputation, relationship with its allies and partners, as well as multilateral cooperation, writes Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS).

I happened to be in Stockholm when the Estonian government split on the issue, which led to a government crisis. I was sitting at a roundtable discussion of EU issues with German, Nordic and Baltic colleagues, in the course of which the rise of populism and right-wing extremism naturally arose as a topic. In corridor chats which ensued, it was clear how Estonia fitted into this wider European context., Radical right-wing populism gained a decisive influence on the government of Estonia without actually being a part of the government.

Estonia is not alone in experiencing political disputes on this UN compact; this has also happened in Germany, Finland and elsewhere. The reason for the disputes is not so much the compact itself, as domestic politics in the country in question – the rise of right-wing populism in recent years has in many cases driven politicians of traditional right wing parties further to the right.

The impact of the government crisis on Estonia’s foreign policy can not be underestimated. The final decision has not yet been made, so before that happens, there is ample reason to consider the possible consequences for Estonia’s foreign policy.

Naturally just one decision can not completely derail the main direction of foreign policy, based on unity of the West and a rules-based world order, pursued over the past couple of decades. However, the crisis over this issue does create doubts and uncertainties over Estonia’s direction in the context of overwhelming uncertainty in world politics.

First, staying out of the compact would damage Estonia’s relations with its allies and partners in western and northern Europe. Addressing migration-related problems via global cooperation is a crucial matter for our European allies, and something the UN compact is aimed at.

Particularly France, Germany, the Nordic countries, and the EU as a whole are making efforts to maintain the wider functioning of multilateral institutions and forms of cooperation. In exiting the compact, Estonia would demonstrate to them that it is not a reliable partner in this area.

Another factor is indeed the impact of Estonia’s decision on multilateral cooperation. It does not help much that current US President Donald Trump, and his National Security Advisor John Bolton, do not seem to believe in international institutions, treaties and norms either. Estonia, by rejecting the compact, would be contributing to the process of weakening multilateralism, which is very detrimental to smaller nations.

Secondary to that, Estonia is now likely to miss out on the non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council [which Estonia has been pursuing lately, particularly via the personhood of current president, Kersti Kaljulaid – ed.].

Even without the current crisis, Estonia’s prospects of getting the seat were uncertain anyway. Now we can say the grapes are sour, which is not completely untrue.

Third – and this process is already under way – we could suffer a blow to the image which Estonia has built up, and be put straight back into the ‘eastern European’ box from which we have been struggling so hard to get away.

Right-wing populism is of course not a solely eastern European phenomenon, but in the eastern member states of the EU, its impact on national policies has been strongest. Intolerance, populism, even blatant racism has in many places been accompanied by the rolling back of the rule of law, press freedom and the situation of civil society.

Estonia is naturally not determined to move in the same direction as Hungary, say, but we have taken a small step in that direction. So we can’t be surprised if for instance the Nordic countries continue to keep us at arm’s length (though cooperation is sure to continue).

The temptation is to comfort ourselves with the fact that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon, but actually this is more danger than consolation. We are risking European and western unity, our shared values, international norms and institutions and, ultimately, our security.

To sum up, the UN compact on migration as such is not important for Estonia, but staying out of it would have much more significant repercussions than the compact itself does.


The article was first published in ERR: