A threat to Estonia’s long-term priority of enlargement?

University of Tartu
Attitudes towards the EU in Estonia must be interpreted in the context of the economic crisis that hit Estonia full force in the end of 2008 (GDP is forecasted to decline by 5.5 percent in 2009). In this context, membership in the EU is seen as a source of stability. In a recent speech to the Parliament on the government’s EU policy, Prime Minister Ansip called on the public to reflect on the situation that Estonia would be in today were it not a member of the European Union. According to Ansip, it would be clear that in that case: “Estonia’s security would be more fragile, the economic decline would be deeper and it would be inappropriate to use the word welfare to describe the ability of the citizens to cope economically. All European countries that do not belong to the EU, be they more prosperous than Estonia, such as Iceland, or poorer, such as Moldova, are having a harder time today than the countries that are members of the Union”.[1]
This sentiment appears to be shared by the general public: according to the recent Eurobarometer survey, Estonians are more confident than any other nation in the EU that their country has benefited from being a member of the Union (78 percent responded affirmatively to this question).[2]
The Estonian Parliament ratified the Lisbon Treaty on 11 June 2008 (one day before the Irish referendum) and the domestic ratification process was completed a week later with the President signing the relevant legislation. The Irish referendum result was perceived as a disappointment but Estonia’s leaders have insisted that the decisions of the Irish people “must be respected” and no one has the right to call on Ireland to halt its membership in the European Union.[3] According to President Ilves, “there are no simple solutions, but the solutions exist and the EU has to find them jointly”.[4] Estonia’s leaders have joined others in the EU in calling for continued ratification of the treaty in the other member states. The main value of the Lisbon Treaty for Estonia appears to lie in strengthening of the common foreign policy: “We cannot leave the EU without a common and strong foreign policy and without a strong decision-making mechanism”, said Ilves. [5] Another key concern is that the delay in the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty could have negative consequences for enlargement; a long-term priority for the Estonian government.[6] Public debate on the treaty has been sluggish, but according to Foreign Minister Paet, this is no fault of the government, as all documents related to domestic decision-making on the issue have been publicly accessible. In a democratic society, the media plays a central role in keeping up a debate: the Lisbon Treaty simply has not been a topic that would interest the Estonian media.[7]
Discussing EU candidates but not its future
The upcoming European Parliament elections are frequently in the news now, as parties are announcing their candidate lists. However, coverage of European Parliament elections so far appears to be disconnected from any discussion of the EU’s future. The timing and circumstances of the 2009 European Parliament elections in Estonia suggest that these elections will have strong ’second-order’ characteristics. Taking place two years after the last Riigikogu elections, with the government completing two years in office, these elections are genuine mid-term elections. The elections coincide with a major economic crisis that is already taking a toll on the support rates of the government parties. Furthermore, the European Parliament elections in June are widely regarded as a warm-up for local government elections held in October 2009. Under these circumstances, party candidate selection is influenced by the understanding that the elections entail a vote of confidence in the government.
The government calls on citizens to actively participate in the elections (turnout in 2004 was a mere 27 percent). According to Prime Minister Ansip, five years of membership in the EU have clearly proven that negative scenarios and pre-accession fears have not materialized. Politicians who tried to demonize Estonia’s partnership with the EU (drawing parallels to occupying regimes of the past) have clearly been proven wrong.[8] A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that Estonians are better informed about upcoming European Parliament elections than citizens in most other member states (46 percent were aware of the fact that Eeuropean Parliaments elections will be held in 2009, compared to 26 percent in the EU as a whole), but they are not particularly interested in these elections (63 percent claimed not to be interested, compared to the EU average of 54 percent).[9]
There has been very little discussion about the formation of the new Commission, aside from some speculation about who will be nominated by the Estonian government as a candidate for the post of the Commissioner. Prime Minister Ansip said consultations have not started yet but that he personally believes that Siim Kallas has done very well as Vice-President of the Commission and should be given the chance to continue.[10]

[1] Speech by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on the Government’s European Union policy in the Riigikogu, 9 December 2008, available at: .

[2] Evelyn Kaldoja, ”Eestlased peavad ELi oma riigile kõige kasulikumaks,” Postimees, 28 January 2008, available at: .

[3] Government Press Release, ”Peaminister tutvustas Riigikogus Eesti seisukohti Euroopa Ülemkogul,” 16 June 2008, available at: .

[4] "Estonian president ratifies Lisbon Treaty,” 19 June 2008, available at: .

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Release, „Delays in Implementation of Lisbon Treaty Should Not Interfere with Expansion of European Union“, 13 July 2008, available at: .

[7] „Urmas Paet: Riikide vahel on alati parem rääkida kui mitte rääkida,” Pärnu Postimees, 9 May 2008, available at: .

[8] Speech by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on the Government’s European Union policy in the Riigikogu, 9 December 2008, available at: .

[9] Evelyn Kaldoja, ”Eestlased peavad ELi oma riigile kõige kasulikumaks,” Postimees, 28 January 2009, available at: .

[10] Transcript of the IV session of the XI Riigikogu, „VV tegevus EL poliitika teostamisel,” 9 December 2008, available at: .