ESTONIA IN THE EU: FIFTEEN YEARS ON
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
I was appointed the first resident Irish Ambassador to Estonia in late 2001, opening the Embassy in Tallinn in November 2001. I left Estonia in August 2004, shortly after the country’s accession to the EU. There follow some personal observations on the Accession.
I had previously served in the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels from 1995 to 1999, servicing the Central and Eastern European Working Groups, and, after 1997, the Enlargement Group. During this period I got opportunities to get to know and visit – together with the Group – all of the Candidate Countries – as they were then termed – apart from Malta and Cyprus. The Central European States were linked to the EC fifteen by what were termed the Europe Agreements, structures designed to ease the process of development ( political, economic and institutional) of the transition states to the point where they were deemed ready to enter into formal negotiations for accession to the EU.
The Baltic States, having emerged from fifty years of Soviet occupation and annexation were not sufficiently developed institutionally to be covered by a Europe Agreement and initially relations with the EU were through Free Trade Agreements (the background to this is covered in detail in “Estonia’s Way into the EU,” an excellent collection of essays published by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009). Estonia, the smallest but most progressive and prosperous of the Baltic States, was to the fore in pressing for an Association Agreement with the EU, thus ensuring that, despite this difference in status, the EC would treat the Baltics in similar fashion to the Central Europeans.
In fact by the time of my arrival in Brussels, Estonia, because of its dramatic success in transforming a former Soviet economy, had become virtually the Commission’s poster boy for the applicant states. Not surprisingly Estonia was among the first tranche of applicants approved for formal accession negotiations – this before the regatta style approach to bring all candidates forward together. Thereafter negotiations between the Commission and Estonia commenced, in March 2008. The format was to verify the compliance of Estonia with the various chapters of the Acquis Communautaire, with negotiations formally concluded when all had been complied with, the Commission notifying Member States of progress as chapters were closed.
By the time of my arrival in Estonia accession negotiations were well advanced and the Nice Treaty, signed in February 2001, had endorsed Enlargement, to include Estonia. It’s worthwhile pointing out that the Ambassador sur place has no role or function in the accession negotiations. However, there was one fly in the ointment which served to propel me, and I suspect my colleagues in the other Candidate countries, into a higher than usual profile. This was that Ireland, in a referendum in June 2001, had voted to reject the Treaty, thus putting a brake on any enlargement. I spent much of my first year as Ambassador fielding and explaining this issue. What might be termed “Official Estonia” – the governing elite and the chattering classes – was bemused. They could not comprehend why Ireland, which many had regarded as the role model for success for a small nation in the EU, had voted as it did. President Ruutel, when I presented credentials, simply asked me “What happened?”
There was however very little hostility towards Ireland over the vote, though I was confronted on several occasions with the rather blunt assertion that it appeared that Ireland, having got the most out of its EU membership, had decided to pull the ladder up behind it preventing poorer or less advanced countries getting in. My response was to stress that Ireland was not opposed to Enlargement, to explain the circumstances, the low turnout and the various reasons which could help explain the vote and to explain that the Irish Government was in discussions with the Commission and interested Member States to see if there were grounds for asking the Irish people to vote again.
As we know the Irish people DID vote again in October 2002 on the basis of some clarifications received and endorsed the Treaty by a significant margin. As it happens I hosted a dinner for the Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas several days after the vote. He congratulated me on the outcome and asked what I would have said to him had the result been unfavourable. My response, at which he was highly amused, was to state that in that case it would have been a case of the Crucifixion coming before the Last Supper! The Treaty was duly ratified and came into force, paving the way for Estonia to join the EC in 2004. I need hardly add that the Yes vote for Nice made my posting in Tallinn more comfortable.
There was one more major obstacle to be overcome – the referendum in Estonia, which took place in September 2003. While it was carried by a two-to one majority the result was by no means as foregone as the margin suggested, with the electorate laid back and fears therefore of voter apathy and a low turnout. The country was doing well, which is not necessarily conducive to raising passions or interests in any direction. Although “Official Estonia” was strongly in favour, the country’s largest party, the (slightly populist and left-of-centre) Centre Party advocated voting NO. Additionally there was opposition from those who argued that Estonia should keep its freedom of action and that the country, having got out of membership of one union – the USSR, which had been a disaster – should not rush to join another union – the EU. A prominent opponent of EU membership and an advocate for this viewpoint was Mart Helme, a former Estonian Ambassador to Moscow, who had played a part in securing the withdrawal of the Russian armies from Estonia. As I write, his far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (which made major gains in the recent General Election) seems poised to enter the new Estonian government, which would be a breakthrough for right wing populist parties in the EU.
The first half of 2004 was for me an exciting, busy and satisfying time. There were my EU Presidency duties with all that that involved in terms of chairing meetings, hosting lunches and dinners and entertaining Estonian politicians and Ministers from Ireland. The country was fairly relaxed about joining the EU, which for most Estonians was just one manifestation –though an important one – of a process which saw Estonia emancipated from Russian dominance and influence. Another part of this process was joining NATO, which took place also in early 2004. At the time there seemed little threat from a Russia that was still recovering from the Yeltsin years but most Estonians with whom I was in contact expressed relief and satisfaction at having, as they saw it, the safety umbrella of NATO membership over them.
With NATO membership tucked away, May 1 was greeted by most Estonians phlegmatically. The country was seen as entering a new phase in its independence and most were comfortable with it. I often heard from Estonians around that time that they had lost half a century but that now that past was behind them. There were some celebrations but for the most part reaction was muted. For the political figures with whom I was friendly, including Prime Minister Parts and his predecessor, Kallas, who was to become Estonia’s first European Commissioner, there was a mixture of joy and relief that the milestone had been passed. Juhan Parts, as he often did, called to see me after work and then we agreed to have a quiet celebration as midnight was reached. Which we duly did. He was to fly to Dublin in the small hours so his celebration with me was undoubtedly a sign of the high regards with which Ireland was held. My own personal feelings were also relief plus a certain satisfaction at being present at a milestone event in the history of a country. I cannot say I played a major part but I was there.