Urmas Paet: Trump's troop withdrawal solo an unfortunate development
The Reform Party could support the coalition's presidential candidate, former foreign minister, MEP Urmas Paet says. He sees as the most unfortunate aspect of USA-EU relations the fact President Trump fails to discuss plans with allies and engages in solo acts that undermine transatlantic cooperation.
When will Estonia get a female head of government, like countries that have been successful in managing the coronavirus crisis (Germany, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and Finland)?
(Sighs) I'm going to have to finish my coffee to tell you that… (takes a sip) … I think there will be coffee grounds once I reach the bottom. Then we'll see.
That was a heavy sigh.
Not really. Excess carbon dioxide is all there was to it.
It will happen one day. However, as I said, I would have to engage in tassology to give you a date.
Conservative People's Party (EKRE) deputy chairman Martin Helme described the popularity of the Reform Party as a "total trap" – you will not be replacing your chairman Kaja Kallas for as long as you remain the most popular in the polls, while you will never leave the opposition if you keep your chairman. A tragic fate.
I believe that the person you are referring to has been made into a mystical figure in Estonia and quoted one too many times.
He is the deputy chairman of a ruling party.
I'm serious when I say that some politicians are quoted and amplified to an insensible degree in Estonian politics, despite their utterances holding little in the way of value and meaning.
Criticizing a party (Reform) for having too many supporters shows we are not dealing with a serious and competent analysis.
What Martin Helme was rather suggesting is that the Reform Party will not be included in future governments for as long as it keeps its current chairman.
Firstly – see my answer to your initial question.
It is a single person's assessment that has very little to do with democratic processes in a free society. It is clear that no Estonian government is formed simply based on sympathy or lack thereof for a single party's chairman. That is hardly a modern approach.
Your honorary chairman Siim Kallas turned Helme's utterance on its head on the pages of Õhtuleht: "Let's turn that around and say that as long as the Helme family remains part of it, it is impossible to work with EKRE." Is that truly how rigid things have become now?
I would like to believe it is not. Recent years in public life and politics have been characterized by an abundance of empty words and rhetoric that too often lacks substance and meaning. Things that are no longer valid or taken seriously the next day are uttered too often.
Does that also apply to Siim Kallas?
It is a general tendency in Estonian politics. Words do not weigh what they should, unfortunately.
Ruling out individual people cannot be an adequate approach. If a party is to be ruled out based on cooperation being difficult to imagine, you need solid arguments.
You are deputy chair of the Reform Party, so perhaps you can say whether it would have been better not to rule out cooperation with EKRE after elections as you would have the Riigikogu majority between the two of you.
It is not about ruling someone out because of what they're called. What matters is substance, whether enough common ground can be found for a government to make sense.
Periods leading up to elections and campaign promises… I would like them to go beyond empty phrases. Looking at what different parties, including EKRE, promised before elections and their rhetoric at the time, finding common ground would have been strained to say the least.
So, it was fair to say that it makes no sense to discuss a government [with EKRE].
What is the Reform Party's mission in the opposition?
The same it would have been in a coalition – to offer as many solutions to problems as possible and try to implement them to ensure the prosperity and security of Estonians…
… to make sure the level of freedoms we have achieved would be safeguarded for every single person.
Urmas Paet, who cares about the opposition's proposals? Because the coalition sure doesn't.
They do from time-to-time. Pointing out certain things, especially if relevant efforts are consistent, has an effect. There are different views inside the government today and helping the government on important topics is the opposition's task.
For example – and I'm very pleased with it because it was the only conceivable option – the Estonian government decided not to swim upstream to the EU recovery package and voiced its support. The opposition's role in creating a backdrop in society and explaining matters is important here too.
What would need to happen for the government to change?
(Smiles) There are several options.
Would it require an Isamaa mutiny or Center getting tired of it all?
The first option in a parliamentary democracy is Riigikogu elections and their result.
The second is difference of opinion within the government. I cannot say what that could be today. As the past year has shown – lofty statements are made, personal criticism and slander thrown around, but once the time comes to make a decision, it gets made, whereas the parties involved even manage to convince themselves it was the right call.
Would Reform be better off forming a government with the Center Party or with Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE)?
(Sighs and pauses.)
It would have been calmer with Center – a single partner.
It's the general rule that the fewer partners you have, the harder it is to fall out or for major differences to manifest. I would like to hope that at the end of the day, the answer would depend on common ground at the time of negotiations.
Isamaa and SDE would add more tensions?
Three partners are more than two and bound to have more differences. On the other hand, from a very idealistic point of view, such a combination would represent more groups in society.
You have worked with Edgar Savisaar in Tallinn, back when you were the Nõmme district elder, after which you served as foreign minister in Andrus Ansip's first government, alongside Savisaar who was the economy minister. Can you say, looking back, whether Center has changed and how?
I have not been a member of the Center Party and cannot speak to its inner workings.
Viewed from the outside, Savisaar was a far more authoritarian leader. I used to attend city government sittings that were always quite crowded, with deputy mayors, district elders, city department heads in attending. Tallinn had a coalition between Reform and Center at the time. Savisaar was mayor. And every sitting, he would publicly rail against his own party's district elder or deputy mayor.
There was a saying back then that I imagine suited Savisaar and his inner circle. That if you beat your own dogs, others will be afraid. A hard style. And Center Party functionaries really were afraid of him.
Today, it seems they are not afraid of Ratas. It was a one-man party during Savisaar's day, while there are more leaders or half-leaders there today.
Are you disappointed in Jüri Ratas for refusing to play second fiddle in a Reform Party government after losing the elections and forming a coalition with EKRE and Isamaa instead?
"Disappointed" is not the right word. I was surprised.
I was surprised because I expected that serving as a European prime minister – where he used to and still likes to communicate with his colleagues – would influence his domestic choices. I was surprised when it didn't. The only thing that mattered was holding on to the prime minister's seat.
From Center's point of view, Ratas did the only sensible thing.
I wouldn't be so sure.
We cannot say something is 100 percent right when evaluating social processes.
Yes, positions matter, more so the prime minister's. However, if your choice of coalition ends up shocking a large part of society, including your voters and supporters, as they are bothered by a partner's meanspirited utterances, it comes with a price. At least looking at the past year and Center's rating.
What is more important in the end? Staying true to your principles in a system of values or choosing a different position following tactical considerations. Go figure.
I'm not sure it was the best solution for Center. Even without the prime minister's seat, a different government could have served Center better.
Are you happy in the European Parliament?
I'm happy with some things and less happy with others. Such is life.
You do not feel bored in Brussels?
The second half of the previous composition and perhaps some time after that it was very interesting. I got to do a lot of work.
A large part of the new composition's first year has been spent in neutral. First, it took months for the parliament to even convene after elections. When things finally started happening in spring, we got the [coronavirus] crisis which is when the Parliament – rather, its president – just pulled the plug on most MEPs' work. This situation still endures. We have Zoom and other kinds of meetings, but it's not the real thing.
Also, most decisions currently concern the EU recovery package, while many other important topics, especially in terms of the future, have been put on ice.
What is your income in the European Parliament?
The same as what my colleagues have reported to you. I make a little under €7,000 after taxes, plus living and transport expenses.
What is the taxpayer getting in return?
Generally speaking, that benefit ties into worldview. What they get is me working toward having a strong and functional EU that is the best security and prosperity guarantee for Estonia also in the European Parliament.
I have been the rapporteur for different defense policy matters, next comes security policy – things aimed at having a strong Europe.
You often use the expression, "a strong Europe is in Estonia's interests." Are you a European federalist?
I am not. First of all, it would not be workable considering recent developments and it would also not be sensible. I believe that we need to act together in matters where 27 member states can agree.
Let us take a look at the big picture. The Estonian economy is greatly dependent on export 90 percent or more of which goes to the EU. The first conclusion, then, is that as long as the European common market is working, as long as our export markets are doing well in the EU, we will benefit. From there – the wealth of these export markets increasingly depends on where Europe, those markets and Estonian companies stand globally.
For example, a Põlva County company that exports its products to the European Union and its employees ultimately depend on the global balance between Europe, China, USA and others. It is all connected.
Coming back to Europe's strengths, the EU needs to be as strong as possible to successfully balance China, USA and Russia in order to ensure its member states' prosperity.
When the coronavirus crisis hit and EU borders were sporadically being closed, could the European Commission have ordered member states to open Schengen borders and restore EU basic freedoms?
No, it could not. Member states have the right to restore border control if the healthcare situation warrants it. And it did in this case.
What the EU and member states could have done better would have been to seek mutual understanding and communication. The result would have been the same – border control would have been restored either way – but it would have been more systematic, created less tensions between neighbors.
Countries didn't even bother to tell their neighbors they had decided to close the border at midnight. This could have been avoided had member states taken a breath and a few more hours to talk to neighbors.
Several liberal politicians asked in March to what extent where restrictions in the EU based on medical grounds and how often were they an attempt to please voters by way of making forceful decisions. What would be your answer?
It was a mix of the two, depending on the country.
Looking back at the last three months, there is no black and white pattern of countries that opted for very tough restrictions having seen fewer deaths. Let us take the example of Belgium and the Netherlands – two similarly sized neighbors. Belgium opted for very strict restrictions, while the Netherlands introduced some, but they were never as serious. For example, the Netherlands never closed their borders. Twice as many people have died of the coronavirus in Belgium, unfortunately.
It is almost impossible to say that a given administrative measure has had such and such effects. While some things are just logic and common sense. If you managed to keep major nursing homes isolated from the virus, you did better.
You warned that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could drive the wedge between Southern- and Eastern Europe even deeper. To what extent does the Commission's recovery plan help mitigate that split?
This is akin to what can also be seen in Estonian domestic policy. That there are negative utterances meant for domestic consumption that happen at someone else's expense.
Let us take a look at the plan. At first, there were several Eastern- and Central European countries that said it would not fly and that everyone should get equal conditions instead of the south receiving more… It did damage, caused negative emotions, even though all Eastern- and Central European countries are now behind the rescue plan. Most are now receiving more than they contribute.
Was it surprising to see EKRE support the Commission's recovery plan?
It was not. It falls into the same category of making edgy statements on a certain Sunday radio show, for instance, only to make the necessary decisions a few days later. There has been a lot of thunder over the past year.
So, it seems natural to me to see EKRE chairman [Mart Helme] come on screen during ERR's evening news program and say that, of course, the EU and European unity matters to Estonia.
How does Estonia look as seen from Brussels today?
Pretty. Lovely. Nice. That is how it looks. Peaceful.
We do have an advantage in the modern world… Looking at the recent unrest in USA and major European capitals where demonstrations often culminate in looting and rioting – and this is where I touch wood – Estonia is not such a place.
Estonia is a very nice place in the human dimension.
Political scientist Tõnis Saarts suggests that the night-watchman state idea and neoliberalism find themselves so unpopular that it is questionable whether they will ever be restored in recent form. Are liberals looking at tough times?
I do not think they are. The question is what makes a liberal for different people. For me, the main characteristics of a liberal are prioritizing and defending individual freedoms and rights. In a world where pressure on freedoms is clearly mounting, Europe is where people should feel their freedoms are safe. That is the main thing for me – protection of human rights, freedoms… I believe most people in Europe and Estonia value those things.
According to Saarts, there are two political opportunities up for grabs in the future – a modernized version of social democracy or a more moderate right-wing conservatism.
Everything changes. Measuring political trends using 19th century base theories – it holds no practical value.
If we compare the social democrats in Estonia and Spain, there is initially nothing to suggest a common denominator. The same goes for liberals who tend to disagree quite fiercely in the European Parliament.
We cannot expect classical political lines to remain unchanged in spite of social developments. Everything changes.
When it comes to the radical right, we can see parties who want to be friends with Russia even unto the European Union collapsing so they can cut their own deals, while there are also those in whose eyes Russia is an existential threat to Europe and their own countries.
Suggesting that all conservatives, liberals or social democrats are the same – they just aren't. This makes it much harder to get your bearings and means that a single-valued approach is of no use.
Which is more prevalent in international relations – rationality or emotionality?
(Pauses) It seems that lately… emotions take center stage.
It has been helped by a universal information environment, social media, an increasingly greater number of people having access to all manner of information, including false information, meaning that emotions have become more dominant. Also, for the decision-makers as they need to keep in mind what is happening around them in society.
President Trump feels that Germany is treating the USA poorly in terms of trade and decides to cut in half U.S. troop presence in Germany. Can we still say the USA is a pillar of transatlantic security?
I believe we still can. We've seen all manner of things during Trump's time in office, but there have been more words and tweets than actions. Unfortunately, we have also seen the latter and it is not having a positive effect on U.S.-Europe cooperation.
There are 52,000 U.S. troops in Germany that will be cut down to 25,000.
Yes, there are three problems with that.
The first one is that he makes these decisions by himself. U.S. troops are not there to defend Germany. It is part of a bigger picture called NATO. Having a single NATO ally make decisions without consulting the others is the worst aspect of it.
The second problem is that reduced U.S. military presence in Europe sends a signal to those who are gladdened by such developments. Russian and China first and foremost, talking about global rivals.
The third has to do with timing. Trump proposing bringing Russia back to the G7 table without consulting allies fits into this context.
Looked at from whichever angle, the U.S. solo is an unfortunate development. If we want to talk about U.S.-European cooperation, it should have no place for such solo acts.
On the other hand, presidential elections in the U.S. are just months away. That also speaks to context. We could be talking about new political choices by the USA in a matter of months.
America seems tired of being the world's leader and teacher, with its own troubles growing out of hand, writer Jaan Kaplinski says on the pages of LP, adding that Estonia should consider the possibility of America pulling out of global and European affairs to an even greater degree and not put all of its eggs in one basket. What alternative baskets do we have?
Europe has enough experience cooperating and enough money, technology and wisdom to contribute more to European security.
Our security has been largely dependent on the USA for decades. Looking ahead, the States need to be here to pursue successful cooperation, but it is clear Europe's own contribution to security needs to grow.
Talk in recent years of European defense cooperation is not aimed against NATO or to weaken the alliance but rather points to the obvious need for us to do more. This is further confirmed by the currently hectic situation of transatlantic relations – times can be different. That is why it is good to be able to defend oneself if necessary, instead of relying on help from another continent. That does not mean the latter should be rebuffed. On the contrary, it needs to be integrated with European efforts, while we also need to do our homework.
You've said the EU and USA should make sure China doesn't steamroll us instead of fighting amongst themselves. Hasn't the coronavirus crisis put supply security above cheap labor in terms of major companies pulling out of China, turning the rise of China into a fall?
Yes, but I believe this will not happen.
Some European countries' economic dependence on China is remarkable today. Whether through major loans or strategic infrastructure projects China ends up controlling – all of it has already happened, where we stand today is no longer cart blanche.
As concerns what is to come, there is a component that cannot be overlooked – price. Until China manages to manufacture things more cheaply than others, it will have an advantage. And many entrepreneurs will try to take advantage of it.
The EU has tough competition rules for its own companies, against state aid etc. While Chinese or Persian Gulf companies active in Europe are not constrained by rules, such as the state aid ban, for example. This puts European companies at a disadvantage.
One of the first results of the current crisis will be the EU going over its competition rules to take away third countries' competitive advantages over European enterprises.
Norwegian came to the brink of bankruptcy and was bought with Chinese money. We need to make sure strategic companies do not end up under the control of entities funded by countries from outside the EU.
Flights were canceled in Brussels because the airport's ground services provider Swissport closed shop. Everyone thinks that Swissport is a Swiss company because of its name. But it is not, its Chinese.
And China left its company hanging?
Their considerations remain to be seen. The fact is that you have a strategic company with its owner not in Europe and if they decide to pull the plug in faraway China, air traffic grinds to a halt in the EU capital. That is the situation today.
What will happen with presidential elections in 2021?
The president of a parliamentary country will be elected. (Smiles)
Will the Reform Party propose a candidate?
I don't know. We have not discussed it in those terms yet. It seems the coalition hopes to get a president this time, while no clear lines have emerged.
I wonder whether the Reform Party would be willing to back Jüri Luik (Isamaa) whom Jaanus Karilaid from Center has suggested as a potential candidate.
He is a respected and dignified person. But again, we cannot say anything until we have a clear picture of candidates and the balance of power regarding each one.
Do you believe the Riigikogu will manage to elect the president in 2021?
Yes, it's possible under certain circumstances. Namely that the candidate put to the Riigikogu cannot be the result of backroom deals cut by the coalition partners. It needs to be a candidate with a broader social following.
The coalition could theoretically decide not to enforce voting discipline and try to find the best possible president for the country. While it's possible, I do not regard it too likely. I believe the presidential matter has been blown up enough for the coalition to try and find a candidate they can all get behind.
And who could the Reform Party back if the aim is to get the president elected in the parliament?
That would require Reform votes. But generally speaking, it's best for everyone if the candidate is not a party or coalition politician.
Do you remember what you told Eesti Ekspress when asked what is it you fear the most?
Yes, of course.
You said – war. Isn't it a little too dark and depressing?
A thing you fear needs to be dark and depressing I'm afraid.
Asked "what do you hope for," you said for common sense to only just win the day in the end. Therefore, is there hope?
(Laughs) While I prefer to avoid clichés, hope dies last.
There is a deep truth to this overused thought.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski