Interview with the Estonian ambassador in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland Gert Antsu

Gert Antsu

The College of Europe

Estonia joined the European Union in 2004 and signed the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. How is the European identity perceived by the Estonians? Can Estonian Europeism be considered as a way to defend its own national identity?

Over the last eleven years, since Estonia joined the EU, the country has become one of the most pro-European member states, comparable to Belgium and Luxembourg. This might be seen as quite normal for a small peripheral country but it was not that obvious ten years ago. Then it seemed that Estonians were sceptical by nature and this certainly applied to membership in “another union”. However, under the pro-European government of Andrus Ansip we witnessed a rapid economic growth and increase in salaries and people associated that new wealth with Europe. Most importantly, the fears that membership would have represented a threat to our language or culture did not materialise, rather the national culture has been doing very well in conditions of increased prosperity.

In the current days, we are witnessing the first strain emerging in this European identity: 70-80% of the population is still positive about the membership, but many Estonians are seriously worried about immigration: the proposal of obligatory quotas of resettlement of refugees has gathered a lot of opposition. The reason is the forced immigration suffered during the Soviet time and this starts the alarm bells ringing again about our culture and language – which may be somewhat understandable in a country of just 1.3 million people.

 

Immigration has become one of the hottest political topics. The parallel with David Cameron’s rhetoric in the UK is here very striking.

The difference between the UK and Estonia is that the UK has been a country of immigration for a very long time. In our case, after regaining independence, it has been more about emigration. So in our case it is a fear oof something unknown rather than deciding on the basis of evidence. However, also in the UK we see that it is people who live furthest away from immigrants are the ones who are most worried.

 

For a long time the Baltic States had been considered as a frontier land, a sort of “Europe but not Europe” [1]; is it now the “New Europe”? And what is the role of the New Europe for the Union?

When I came to Brussels in 2008, it was four years after Estonia had joined the EU, and there was still the feeling that you have so much to learn from traditional Europe – and you had to learn a lot in a very short time. At the same time we were an unknown quantity, one among the many new entrants. Now, seven years later, I dare to say that we have become more known, more people in Brussels would have associations regarding Estonia, be it a well-organised country with advanced e-government or being the homeland of Skype and other interesting ICT start-ups or our then reasonable and pro-European behaviour in the EU. For myself as deputy permanent representative to the European Union at the time, the first recognition came during the climate negotiations when our willingness to shoulder responsibilities with the rest of Europe set us somewhat apart from many others. The recognition gives us more confidence and also a feeling that we have really made it to Europe if I may put it this way. For a small country it is really great feeling to be set as an example to others or when we see that other see something worth learning about in our country, for example the Belgian deputy prime minister Alexander De Croo came to Estonia to see how the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) sector is doing before presenting his own reform agenda here in Belgium.

 

Maybe we perceive the Eastern countries as a block because they were formally all part of the Soviet Union [or its satellites]?

Yes but it is an illusion. If you look at the current hot political topics in Europe, you can easily see that the Central and Eastern European member states do not form a homogenous block. As a matter of fact, no geographical area does – one can only look at the different positions of the Mediterranean member states in the ongoing Greek crisis. More broadly, it is the nature of the European Union with its competences in so many areas, from aquaculture to development cooperation and telecommunications that there can never be permanent blocks, one has always different allies in different questions.

 

The Estonian people feel that they belong to a Nordic country, don’t they?

Estonia feels Nordic – although with a certain baggage we have from the Soviet Era. There is still a bit of this Soviet heritage we didn’t work through, people are a bit less tolerant than in the Nordic countries, for instance. But overall we have managed to close most of the gap in the last 25 years.

Even if we do not have blocks in Europe, there are always some who are perhaps closer to you and to whom you talk more often. For instance, for us the close cooperation between the Nordic-Baltic member states is an important frame of reference, with our prime ministers meeting in Brussels before every European Council meeting and exchanging views, as a good example.

 

On the website of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among the foreign policy objectives listed, it is reported that in order to ensure national security, Estonia aims to achieve a “strong EU, encompassing an efficient Common Foreign Policy and Security Policy (CFSP) as well as a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

Does it mean that Estonia has a “European Grand Strategy”? Is it time for Estonia to take on international responsibilities and commitments?

We have never shied away from international commitments – from participating at UN peace-keeping missions or fighting international terrorism. However, I am sure that we can do more as Europe in the field of foreign policy player as well, even if this brings back to the previous question – a European foreign policy will never come to being if member states only look at their own immediate interest and omit the bigger picture. There is a lot Europe can do more, also inside NATO where Estonia is one of very few members that spends two per cent of its GDP in defence – it is hard to see how NATO will be able to fulfil its core tasks, i.e. defend itself and keep projecting its power outside the North Atlantic area if the European members of the Alliance are not willing to contribute.

 

Can Estonia have a role in pushing the rest of EU Member States in the direction of a common foreign policy?

I think it is rather the global developments that are pushing us in the direction of a common policy. If we look at the Russian annexation of the Crimea, an undisputed part of Ukraine, and then stoking trouble in the Eastern part of Ukraine, it would be impossible for Europe not to react to a serious armed conflict going on in its neighbouring countries. The debates inside the Union have not been easy and obviously it takes longer to react for a Union of 28 members than for a single country, but we are getting there nevertheless. We have been able to sanction people and companies linked to the unacceptable behaviour of Russia and I am sure our principled approach is the only possible way to go. And this is then a real common foreign policy in action, showing that Europe is able to be a significant geopolitical actor rather than just adopt declarations about political declarations about conflicts in distant regions and providing development assistance (which is important as well but I feel we have obtained a more mixed toolbox over the past difficult year). And we can see the from the reactions of certain countries that we are being taken more seriously as a result.

 

Estonia and other countries were not that happy about the election of Federica Mogherini as High Representative of the European External Action Service, because she seemed “too soft” with Moscow.

No, not really. Of course, the threat perceptions in different part of the Union are different and our backgrounds are different, but I think that she has adopted very well to her role as High Representative. In addition, it is clear that the high-lever posts in the EU have to be divided between persons from different corners of Europe and this actually contributes to our strength rather than takes anything away.

 

The project of a European army has lately become topical again; what is your point of view? And is it compatible with the idea of a strong alliance with the US, and a strong and capable NATO?

For my country and for myself, the realistic possibility at the moment is a strong European arm of NATO. In order to protect ourselves from various sorts of very real dangers, we need the cooperation of both sides of the Atlantic. However, recent conflicts have shown that there may be circumstances where Europe needs to take military action on its own and for this our own capabilities would need to be enhanced. After all, we are spending a lot on defence in Europe in absolute terms but because of our lack of cooperation, in procurement for instance, and because of duplication, we do not get quite as much out of it as we should. There is ample scope of improving on current practice here.

 

Since the events in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia showed that it considers the use of force as a real option: is Estonia threatened by Moscow nowadays? How do you see the solution of this conflict that is opposing Russia and part of the West?

Yes, people in Estonia certainly feel more threatened than before. At the same time we feel that we are not alone – the same threat perception is shared in varying degrees by the whole Western world, so it is not just “part of the West”. I do not think a military conflict in Estonia is very likely, but the more we do to prevent it, the less likely it becomes. In that sense joint planning working in NATO to prepared for all eventualities, the forward positioning of NATO forces, even if symbolic in their size, is very important. This is a clear answer to Russia saying that the use of force against one’s neighbours is not acceptable and the West is willing and able to stand up to neighbourhood bullies.

 

How to solve it? No matter how you think about it, there is no other way than sticking to our principles. We see a nice solution being dangled in front of our eyes – the Russians constantly talk about the Congress of Vienna after the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago, where the autocrats of the day divided up Europe between themselves and this resulted in a long period of peace. They do not even shy away from presenting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 in a positive light. But it is always other countries, other peoples that they want to divide up. Fortunately Europe has evolved a long way over the last 200 or even 75 years and does not play games over the heads of the people in smaller countries. This approach remains completely unacceptable to us even if it means we have to find new markets for our pears or yoghurt. Otherwise, how could we really look at ourselves in the mirror and how would we define ourselves? Then we would not be much better than than the great powers of the 19th century. So we have to stick to our principles and maintain the sanctions. We should not forget that economically the West is so much stronger than Russia and that we can only emerge as winners even if Russia will continue its aggressive policy towards its neighbours. We have not come to accept minority rights, be they sexual or ethnic, democracy, free press etc. in order to sell those rights cheaply by making shady deals with autocrats.

 

Don’t you see any diplomatic solution? Is there anything that Russia could accept that doesn’t involve the use of force?

As I said before, it would be easy to appease Russia by giving it a droit de regard over its neighbours. My country and Europe as a whole is not willing to do that. The ball is firmly on the Russian court, they will have to remove their troops from Ukraine and accept the sovereign choices that this country is making. This can be the only basis for a possible solution.

 

In an interview for The Times, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressed his concern about the extremist political forces in the European Union. The interviewer reported in his article that countries such as Greece, Italy, Hungary and Cyprus, who are calling for the lifting of sanctions against Moscow are “useful idiots” of Vladimir Putin.

Is there a fracture that divides the EU Member States? Why would a loosening of the measures taken against Russia represent a risk for the whole of Europe?

First of all, our President did not mention any specific countries and the interviewer later apologised for his mistake. It was rather directed at those who do not understand that in order for Europe to have a truly common foreign and security policy, we must speak with a single voice. This means not only adopting communiqués in Brussels but sticking to common positions when talking to our partners and neighbours as well. It really undermines the whole concept of a common policy if some try to undercut the policy for their own short-term political or economic gains. In the long term, we are then all bound to lose. If we do not hang together, we will hang separately, as they say.

We all have to understand the importance of solidarity in Europe and realise that cutting corners will not do. My country has benefitted enormously from this solidarity – not only financially from EU structural funds but from the unity displayed by members of NATO that I have described before. Italian – or Belgian – fighter jets are contributing to the patrolling of the skies over the Baltic States, Europe has been displaying strong financial solidarity helping out members in trouble, and we will do our part accommodating asylum seekers that have flooded the Mediterranean member states.

 

Therefore we can be optimistic if we stick together…

Yes, and this is not ungrounded optimism but we have real reasons for being proud of our achievements in Europe – even in these difficult times. It is often repeated but Europe has mostly evolved and grown stronger through crises. I am confident it will emerge stronger this time around as well, we just need to be patient and keep our focus.

 

All the Baltic countries depend completely on Russian gas: if the escalation gets worst, does Estonia have to worry about the gas supply?

Yes, that’s why we are now about to build a joint LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal in Finland and connect it to Estonia. There is already the Lithuanian LNG terminal that is functioning, and it is already exporting to Latvia and Lithuania. As about Estonia, we do not have much heavy industry, thus the share of natural gas is not very high in our energy mix, so our situation is not too bad and it keeps improving as a result of those joint infrastructure projects. Besides, I believe that European fears about the risk of being cut off are somewhat exaggerated as Russia badly needs the income from gas exports and Europe is its biggest market by far, and Europe is doing a lot to diversify its sources of energy.

[1]according to Maria Malksoo, “From Existential Politics Toward Normal Politics? The Baltic States in the Enlarged Europe, University of Cambridge

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