Jüri Ratas: Europe must celebrate hope for the future

PM Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu
PM Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu Source: ERR

The year 2019 should not go down in history as the one when a new metallic cover started to settle over the window of Europe, PM Jüri Ratas said when giving the Riigikogu an overview of the government's European Union policy.

Years ending in the number nine always mark anniversaries of the past century's defining events in Europe. They include the signing of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the loss of freedom and global conflict that followed.

But they also mark the end of an era of undemocratic governments when the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War in 1919 and when WWII finally ended in Eastern Europe in 1989 after totalitarian regimes fell like dominoes.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had the Baltic Way, the former Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution and Poland had its first partly free elections following the efforts of Solidarity. Finally, these forces culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall that started the German reunification than in turn launched the reunification of Europe.

That said, the work of bringing Europe together is not done three decades later. I recently reminded the president of Ukraine during his visit to Estonia of how I said in our EU Council Presidency speech in front of the European Parliament in 2017 that I hope to one day see the Ukrainian president standing where I stood. That dream is still alive.

Next year will mark the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership summits that will no doubt serve as a test of the new geopolitical Europe for those countries. Will Europe be able to manage itself? The year 2019 should not go down in history as the one where a new metallic cover started to settle over the window of Europe.

To use the words of Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, Europe should not become a convent jealously guarding its legacy. Or rather a mirage of one.

History has not run its course in Europe, and countries and nations making efforts in the name of democratic ideals, human rights and social reforms must be given the chance to become a part of the European family that shares common values. North Macedonia and Albania deserve a new chance.

Unique part of the world

Europe forms a unique part of the world because it is built on freedoms, human rights, solidarity and because it has democratic rule. The European Union has clearly been the political guarantor of the above. However, thinking about security, we have no alternative for NATO.

I attended NATO's 70th anniversary summit a week ago and I am glad to report the alliance is in good health – its mission is still the defense of its members for which it has the necessary plans and capacity.

President Donald Trump has not gone unheeded. European allies and Canada have been boosting defense spending for five consecutive years, with $130 billion added by 2020. The 2 percent of GDP club has nine members this year.

There is no need to grasp at straws for an alternative or panic – the defense of Europe happens together with NATO allies. The solution lies in cooperation, not erecting walls.

That is why it saddens me that the Finnish presidency's attempt at finding a solution for including third countries in permanent structured cooperation was not yet supported by all members.

Thinking about what else could be done in the field of defense on the EU level, it could be a clearly defined approach to broad-based defense that is characteristic of how Estonia sees these things.

Adopting a broad-based approach to security would make it possible for the EU to contribute even more to the defense and security of European countries. For us, it is important for the solidarity clause (art. 222) of the Treaty on the European Union to be given clearly defined content, especially when it comes to solving crisis situations.

It matters to us for critical and important cross-border services to have continuity rules and supply security. That we would evaluate technological risks, fend off hybrid and cyber risks and invest in security together.

Climate neutrality and Rail Baltic

I have been told on several occasions in this very hall (Riigikogu – ed.) that Estonia was against adopting the climate neutrality target. Allow me to confirm that we were not ready to fully commit in June. We did not know whether we had the technological and economic prowess to do something like this as a sparsely populated country on the 59th parallel north.

Today, we know that we can and what we need to do. I would like to thank the good people at the Tallinn bureau of the Stockholm Environmental Institute who did not know how significant and time-critical their analysis would become when they first started out.

I'm glad their study confirmed through facts what I was convinced of – that Estonia can achieve climate neutrality. The analysis made it possible for us and our Baltic colleagues to put together a common address.

An address that says that the volume of necessary climate investments makes it insensible to dial back the long-term budget of the EU or resources that would allow the Baltics to reach these targets.

The European Union's effects analysis regarding the next steps to be taken will be completed by the same time next year. And I'm very glad that is the case, for important decisions need to be based on the best possible know-how.

Next come specific proposals that need to be realistic and feasible, so we would really achieve climate neutrality in Europe. This shows that doing the right thing is not enough, that we must also do things right.

I would like to thank Estonian researchers and especially President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere for actively participating in organizing a climate conference together with the Government Office. I'm glad Estonia doesn't only have problems or obligations but that Estonian scientists also have know-how and next-generation solutions.

The challenge of a green turn could motivate young Estonian engineers, whose education is the best in Europe, just as successfully as digital technology has so far. You have raised a valid problem and brought it to our consciousness, now help us create the solutions to tackle it as the world of tomorrow belongs to you!

The soon-to-be-unveiled climate and energy plan 2030 has plotted the right course in allowing member states to make their own choices. I would like to emphasize, however, that Estonia is on track for meeting its 2020 targets, unlike many others, and will likely meet them with room to spare.

We have already adopted one of the most ambitious emissions targets in the EU for 2030 – to reduce our CO2 emissions by 70 percent compared to the year 1990. We are among the five most ambitious countries in terms of renewable energy, considering what is possible.

I'm convinced that the switch to climate neutrality should follow technology neutrality and be based on free market mechanisms as much as possible because only then are we likely to also gain in terms of possibilities, choices and freedoms.

For as long as we do not have a magic wand of suitable energy sources, we should not discard different ways of ensuring supply security using clean technologies. We must also continue to strengthen our energy and supply security with the help of outside connections.

This week will see the launch of the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland in Paldiski that will launch a common natural gas market between three countries.

Last week marked the start of construction of the Harmony Link power connection between Lithuania and Poland, an important milestone for synchronizing the Baltic grids with the system in Europe. We hope to join the Continental Europe synchronous grid by the middle of the decade and are making efforts to secure full financing for the project next year.

The climate neutrality target could require us to strengthen domestic and foreign energy links further, especially should future energy sources mostly lie the west of the country.

Discussions of climate neutrality, the energy turn and supply security will surely take up a considerable part of the Riigikogu's time over the coming years. Then, we will be able to say with more clarity what every Estonian can do for the well-being of the planet and what they can expect from their country.

There is likely no field this goal does not concern. But the goal is clear – to have climate neutrality by 2050, meaning that we must not emit more CO2 than we can bind in 2050. We need to see this target as a major opportunity.

An opportunity to save natural resources, create new jobs and new technologies but also to reduce our dependence on certain energy sources and their suppliers.

By creating clean alternatives, we still want to make use of recent conveniences and not lose the chance to explore the world. If we used to think of Rail Baltic primarily as a strategic link to European centers, we now see rail links as necessary and environmentally friendly alternatives to more polluting modes of transport.

The link will greatly contribute to meeting climate targets, reducing traffic density caused by international transit and the accompanying pollution.

I assure you that Rail Baltic remains an important strategic goal for the government and that we will do everything in our power to remain on schedule and ensure EU funding. My Baltic colleagues and I spent more than half of our time in Riga last week talking about Rail Baltic. The meeting was also attended by representatives of Poland, Finland, the European Commission and the Rail Baltic joint company, with everyone affirming their continued dedication.

I also met with the interim head of the joint company to improve communication and speed up the construction of objects in Estonia. I believe we also found a way to solve problems with the company that we will discuss again in Tallinn in early February.

I also want to say that I and the rest of Estonia are still grateful to the people who have worked or are working in the oil shale sector in Ida-Viru County. Our economy is where it is today largely because of their contribution. We will not forget that even as we take the green turn.

Europe will also not forget and help create new opportunities, investments and fresh outlook. The government has made efforts to give oil shale and Ida-Viru County a place in a new European Commission fund for fair transition from fossil fuels to clean alternatives.

Digital common market

What would Estonia's EU policy be without the digital common market. You would probable ask whether the common market is now ready.

Progress doesn't mean we can rest on laurels, because the benefits of the digital market in the form of goods and services do not create themselves. Europe's high-tech prowess and a smooth digital transition in society can be ensured first and foremost by considerably greater contributions to developing next-generation technology. We need to do it together to remain in global competition.

Over the past year, 5G has demonstrated what lagging behind in terms of speed of development, assessment of security risks or their price could mean, compared to what has perhaps not been achieved through playing by market rules.

We need to make sure the common market continues to develop and functions without failure and in a way to expand our choices. We need to have the courage to create opportunities for an innovative data economy in important sectors (like energy, transport and healthcare).

Europe must also find answers to data economy questions in foreign trade relations and have legal clarity for artificial intelligence developments. This future policy must be able to speed up technological development through smart regulation, making data available in a secure manner and creating legal clarity for consumers and legal certainty for businesses.

Estonia's so-called kratt law (kratt – a mythological artificial intelligence that serves its maker – ed.) will also reach the floor next year. I believe none of us want to live according to default settings determined by the business development departments of faraway corporations, exchanging personal information for services in an uncontrolled manner. I'm sure you all recall the saying that when an online service is free, the user is the commodity.

Legal certainty and technological development also need clarity in terms of responsibility. At the same time, we do not want a legal environment that has clearly gone too far and does not leave technology, creativity and developers enough room. I hope that we will have a clear picture of European data environment and real economy from a cross-border perspective.

Umbrella strategy 'Estonia 2035'

I also owe you an explanation for why this year's EU priorities document is shorter and more concise than previously. The reason is the Government Office's strategic planning reform that will see the completion of the "Estonia 2035" umbrella strategy next year.

The strategy will serve as a foundation for specific development plans and state budget programs. EU policy will in the future also form an organic part of a comprehensive process of domestic strategic planning and development plans.

It will be better integrated with major goals and resources insofar as shaping European policy and cooperation are a part of everyday life in Estonia. The Riigikogu and its committees will be actively involved in these efforts.

Work on preparing Estonia's positions for EU affairs will be based on these documents in the future to better protect the country's interests. A two-year cycle of the document of EU policy priorities will make it possible to flexibly plan hitting targets in strategies and specific development plans. It will also allow reacting to changes faster and with greater flexibility.

It is also important for us that the updated European Semester process and long-term budget support the realization of UN sustainable development and Estonia 2035 goals.

The Government Office is leading the government in a process of updating and reconditioning strategic planning. The strategic planning reform will see close coordination with the Riigikogu, with the parliament playing an important role therein.

I hope it will result in more businesslike and lively debates between ministers and MPs, including as concerns EU policy. I would like to thank the Riigikogu European Union Affairs Committee for cooperation and what are always very thorough discussions.

The political project of European people

An influential, united, value and solidarity-based and functional European Union is in Estonia's interests. Unfortunately, not all the signs around us are encouraging – Freedom House estimates global freedom has now been falling for 13 consecutive years.

Next year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Estonia's first constitution, not only to recall the beginning of independence, rule of law and hard-won freedom but also European fundamental rights and freedoms in Estonia.

The wave of freedom that rolled over Eastern Europe three decades ago started from the desire to sample the human rights and democratic liberties of the free world.

Viewed from afar, Europe still seems an oasis of freedoms. The world's most modern human rights compact – EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – recently turned ten, along with the Lisbon Treaty. Its first sentence reads: "The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever-closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values."

Article one of the charter provides the inviolability, respect and protection of human dignity because without it, there is no peace, no freedoms and no Europe as we know it. Our geopolitical, ecological and technological challenges are a matter of human-sized freedoms, opportunities and rights.

Working together in Europe, we will solve these challenges in a way that creates opportunities, increases freedoms and respects human dignity. These standards are also wanted by others and needed by companies.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen quoted Vaclav Havel when she said she will work "because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed."

The Conference on the Future of Europe must give citizens the chance to treat with and propose dignified solutions to key issues because no one in the world is going to do it for us. Solutions based on human dignity are also good solutions. This dialogue with citizens must not become "Ptydepe" as described by Havel – a bureaucratic newspeak or a Kafkaesque process.

Europe is not a project of the elite but a political one of its people, which is why I'm glad support for the EU is high among both Estonian and Russian-speakers in Estonia, 81 and 79 percent respectively.

Europe must celebrate hope for the future, function as a solution and inspiration for future generations. Just like when we hear the word "Estonia", the word "Europe" must also speak to our soul. And I believe that the Riigikogu should be involved as closely as possible in this work.

I wish Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen and the entire European Commission strength for cooperation! I thank President Tusk and President Juncker for managing Europe, the European Council and the European Commission during a critical period.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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