Study: Estonia has strong image within EU but may be weakened by government

Kristi Raik.
Kristi Raik. Source: ERR

New research shows Estonia has a "strong position" to influence policy-making decisions among European Union member states but this may be weakened in the future by domestic politics, although researchers say it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions.

"Estonia's Partners in the EU Coalition Machinery: Maximising Influence in the EU through Coalition-building" (link in English) published by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute analysed the country's relationships with other EU member states and carried out 52 anonymous interviews with diplomats and officials. 24 were conducted with Estonian diplomats and officials, 18 with diplomats from member states and 10 with officials from EU institutions.

The paper looked at Estonia's partners in the EU with the aim of identifying ways to enhance its influence on policy-making.

The authors of the policy paper found Estonia has a relatively strong position in the EU, considering its small size and limited resources. Hosting the EU presidency in 2017 helped to strengthen its reputation and gain attention for its priorities such as digitization.

But after Brexit one of the main challenges facing the country will be to build stronger links with France and Germany. Germany does listen to small states, but Estonian diplomats believe it is hard to influence the country's stance on policy. With France, historically, there has been a lack of interest in northern and eastern Europe, but ties have improved with President Emmanuel Macron.

Within the Noric-Baltic region, Estonia is very well connected. The country is also thought of as the "key" Baltic state, and interviews showed "It is not uncommon for other actors in the EU to turn first – or even only – to Estonia in order to find out the position of the Baltic states or to encourage the formulation of a joint Baltic position". 

The authors said one of the ways the country can increase its influence is to work with the Nordic-Baltic group of countries to reach out to larger member states and shape making decisions within the European Union. Countries from the region teaming up with the Netherlands and Belgium could also be another way to do this.

The study analysed Coalition Explorer data for its study which is from 2018 so does not measure the impact of the current coalition. But interviews with officials and diplomates show domestic politics and the current coalition may be having some impact on the country's image and influence among member state partners.

Interviews showed a stronger association with the Visegrad countries - Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic - could be "counterproductive to [Estonia's] partnership with the Nordic countries". Relations with the Nordic countries are important to Estonia and the population. Last year Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu suggested Hungary and Estonia should strengthen relations.

The authors wrote: "It is important to acknowledge that Estonia risks damaging its image and losing influence if it positions itself in the same group as the Visegrad countries," but did not say cooperation should be stopped.

About Estonia's reputation, the authors wrote there are "indications of a weakened position" but added "it is too early to draw conclusions about any impact the current Estonian coalition is having".

The author's final highlight from the report is that: "Estonia should avoid losing its reputation as a results-oriented member state that takes into consideration the priorities of others while pursuing its own interests in a constructive manner."

The study was based on a similar study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, which ranked Estonia 12th in the ranking of 28 member states in terms of influence. Finland ranked 11th, Lithuania 21st and Latvia 22nd.

The authors of the study are Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Institute for Foreign Policy, Josef Janning, former head of the Berlin Foreign Affairs Council, Piret Kuusik, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy, and Rein Oidekivi and Kalev Stoicescu, IWC researchers.

The survey was commissioned by the Strategic Office of the State Chancellery.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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