Estonia 10 years in the EU

Posted: May 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, european union, thoughts | No Comments »

Estonia celebrates today 10 years as a member of the European Union. Today, this seems not like a big thing anymore, which means that the celebrations are also rather muted, possibly because people have gotten so used to the idea that they consider it nothing special. In a way, there might also be less celebrations due to the flux the EU seems to be in, constantly, and the disappointment that membership of the EU did not mean an arrival to a permanent paradise, secure and free. Sure, Estonia has developed, but membership of EU (and NATO) has also meant the search of a new national goal. Although there have been sporadic attempts to define this new goals in technological advancement terms: the first State in a Cloud (most recently), search for the Estonian Nokia, e-voting experiments, these have been largely outward marketing exercises aimed at establishing Estonia as an indpendent country in the international stage, which have not really resonated that much with the general population.

Instead, some sort of paradigmatic shift is taking place, which was eloquently put to words by president Ilves in this year’s independence day speech “Mis toond on meid siia, see enam edasi ei vii.” (“this, which has brought us here, no longer takes us forward”), followed by prime minister Taavi Rõivas’ suggestion to focus on small narratives, rather than seek a new big one. Estonia has always depended on some big national narrative, so the lack of it is a test of the resilience (or antifragility?) of the Estonian state. If the leaders do not define a new national narrative, is it going to be defined by someone else? If yes, by whom? Perhaps we should satisfy ourselves with the thought that the Estonia is largely finished, mature state that only needs small tinkering in specific areas, but no overarching national narrative. However, we might also think that such stability means a quiet before the storm, that changing dynamics of the world will require new changes from us as well. 

It is interesting to look at how Estonia seems to view its role in the EU. There is almost two opposing extremes and no middle ground. There is a (pragmatic) view that as a small state we are never going to play an important role of the development or policies of the EU, simply because we lack the human resources, the deep knowledge gained by specialisation possible only in large countries, the capacity to speak on global topics due to our history. This view relegates Estonia among passive followers which should fall in line behind the power that is most useful for us (in terms of our own narrow national interests as defined by the ruling politicians). There are also others who state that Estonia must take the lead in the EU federalization process, these optimists (or utopists?) talk about Estonia punching way above its weight and hosting and managing the ‘upgrading’ of the EU to be like we want it to be. This view will probably be more visible within Estonia as we become closer to Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018, coinciding with the celebrations of 100 years of the Estonian state. Both the pessimistic passive and the optimistic active roles are somewhat extreme and the reality will fall somewhere between those two.

A discussion of 10 years in the EU would remain one-dimensional if one does not look at how Estonia has impacted the EU during these 10 years. From an economic development point of view, Estonia (and Latvia) have been the poster boys for austerity measures. Austerity regime would have been rather more difficult to sell in the EU without the example of Estonia’s ‘success’ in this. Also, the e-Stonia image is surely also benefitial for the EU that is trying (and failing) to regain competitiveness in order to preserve its social model. Estonia has probably given the US a slightly bigger voice inside the EU (it follows closely US foreign policy goals, president Ilves is essentially an American), has promoted the EU neighbourhood policy (and scepticism towards Russia). Estonia has been one of the better spenders of the EU structural funds (although one can of course debate whether all of the money has gone for legitimate purposes) for the upgrading of its economy and society. Also, Estonian membership has possibly stregthened the role and influence of the Nordic states in the EU, with which it has very good relations. But it has also highlighted the social chasm between rich and poor states, which has contributed to brain drain from Estonia for the benefit of the more established and developed member states, not to mention the pressures this has put on the generous social welfare models (as evidenced in the Viking and Laval cases in the ECJ).

Of course the impact of Estonia’s EU membership is something that is quite difficult to begin to analyse at such a short temporal distance, but these first ten years have shown to be ready for the unexpected. My personal hope for 2024 is that the positive impact of EU membership is more evenly distributed among the Estonian population and the situation of not only the elite has been considerably improved, but also that of the people belonging to various minorities.

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