She was the most popular candidate at the 2016 presidential elections but did not become president. Will she run again? Next, she won the European Parliament elections and now spends a lot of time in Brussels. Marina Kaljurand – a person with a friendly smile, open demeanor and often direct utterances – hosts ERR at her summer home in Hiiumaa. Has she gone from being on top to being a dot?
Why are you so popular?
(Silence, shrugs) You need to ask other people that. I hope that the people who voted for me at European Parliament elections were expressing their opinion of how I've lived my life, my recent activities and character.
They numbered 65,549…
It is quite intimidating. I have tried to imagine that number sometimes. I remember attending a concert at Saku Suurhall that had 5,000 people. I would need to multiply that by 13… And every one of them went and ticked a box next to my name; it is a bit scary…
Why are you afraid of being popular?
It is not fear of popularity, rather I don't want to let those people down, if they have sent me to the European Parliament to be the person they elected. Therefore, coming back to my initial answer, I hope it was an evaluation of my life so far and my person that people have come to know as I'm always running somewhere. (Laughs)
However, this success does not extend to your party.
I cannot be separated from my party.
I am a social democrat at heart – through and through. And this means that the 65,000 people who voted for me accept the same values I uphold.
The Social Democratic Party's (SDE) rating hovers around 10 percent, below those of the Reform Party, Center Party, EKRE and sometimes even Estonia 200…
Our current rating is nothing to write home about.
Were you not tempted to run for party chairman when Indrek Saar was elected last June?
I was not. I believe a person should only run for an office they feel they are ready for and know. I definitely do not believe it right to run for chairman after spending just two years in a party's ranks.
You could have converted your personal popularity into party popularity.
I am trying to do that now, without serving as chairman.
I would add that I have seen people run for office for which they are ill prepared, do not want or aren't mature enough. It is a tragedy. Since I have learned a lot in life, I will never run for a position I do not want and where I believe I wouldn't be any good.
Prime Minister Kaljurand doesn't sound bad at all, while Prime Minister Saar just doesn't come off realistic.
Prime Minister Kaljurand… My experience in domestic politics fits inside a few years. I have served as foreign minister and recently as a member of the European Parliament. And while I do have excellent foreign policy experience, I'm not sure I would make a good prime minister. I will be honest in saying I have never even considered it.
By the way, do you believe the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) could become the prime minister's party as promised by their new chairman Martin Helme?
I believe that while EKRE have a relatively good rating, around 15-18 percent in recent years, that is where it will stay. That is the level of support for EKRE in society.
And I very much hope they will not produce a prime minister.
It is a little surprising that the presidential elections of 2016 did not rob you of your desire to participate in politics where people go back on their word and promises are broken.
Like I said, I will run for things I see myself being good at, where I can be useful, that I like and where I know what to do.
I had the chance to do various things after the presidential elections. I spent a few years running an international cyberdefense committee which proposal came from the Dutch government. (Smiles) I managed to prove to myself that I can make do without being offered work in Estonia.
After two years, I found myself wanting to return to Estonian politics as what was happening was worrying me – the rise of EKRE, right-wing populism, demagogy, name-calling, attempts to drive a wedge between people and seek out differences. I wanted to return to Estonian politics. I said right away that I would be running both for the Riigikogu and the European Parliament as it was my first rime running and I didn't know where the people wanted to see me, where support would be greater…
The people wanted to see you in both offices.
(Ignores the question) After the elections, it was clear the people wanted to see me in Europe, and I feel great in the European Parliament. I like it very much there and I disagree with those who say it's a meeting point for people about to retire. (Smiles)
Were you looking to get away Estonia?
No-no. That was not it at all. Estonia is my home and I am a very home-centered person. My postings [as ambassador], living in Moscow and then in Washington was very difficult for me. I always fly home from Brussels the first chance I get. I do not want to leave.
How does Estonia look from afar?
There are different Estonias. There is the Estonia that is visible to foreigners who know the e-Estonia success story, restoration of independence. For them, Estonia is a pearl. Tiny. Precious. Beautiful.
Those who delve deeper, keep an eye on the news and sometimes hear peculiar, negative utterances coming from our direction – they see Estonia differently.
And as a part of Estonia, an Estonian representative in the European Parliament, an Estonian citizen and patriot – I see Estonia in yet another light.
You told Õhtuleht's Rainer Kerge last November that you often have to answer the question of what is wrong with Estonia – that we used to be a successful country of reforms, everything was fine, so why on Earth was it necessary to involve the radical right in the government? You did not by any chance embellish your description a little?
No, I really have been asked that. Less often now, but it was frequent after the forming of [Jüri Ratas' second government]. Utterances by EKRE leaders that I will not repeat here concerning people of different races, nationalities were widely known. These utterances did not stay in Estonia but also reverberated abroad.
So, naturally there were questions of why go with the radical right in a situation where other coalition options existed.
Have you pondered, looking at life in Estonia and Kersti Kaljulaid as president, what you would do differently as head of state?
We are very different people, so the comparison would have little point. I do not want to offer opinions before the end of Kaljulaid's term as president.
I read an opinion piece where you said that the president should rather try and unite the people and only meddle in domestic policy if it clashes with the constitution or core values. Where would president Kaljurand have interfered inside the past 18 months?
Perhaps one of the greatest differences [with the current president] would be handling of the post-election situation.
Once Riigikogu elections results were in and we knew who were talking to whom, I would have definitely spoken – in private – to heads of parties for as long as… (starts to laugh) even unto Jüri Ratas marrying Kaja Kallas if necessary. In other words, I would have tried to do everything in my power to keep a coalition with EKRE as its member from happening.
To unite the entire people… How to unite an entrenched social democrat and a fiery EKRE supporter?
We have democratic elections. People who vote for EKRE are electing their representatives. I respect that [choice].
As a social democrat, I am trying to do everything I can to make sure EKRE would have as few and SDE as many voters as possible. That much is clear.
But as president, I would not be representing the Social Democratic Party. As president – I believe I have the ability and skill to communicate with people, talk and unite them.
Attitude toward leading EKRE politicians who throw around insults is one thing, while talking to the people who vote for them is another entirely. I have done so on numerous occasions. I even managed to make an EKRE supporter my elector during presidential elections.
I take it you are not bored in Brussels.
No, I like it. It took time to get settled in as the apparatus is quite complicated. But I was lucky in being given topics that I could sink my teeth into right away.
Your salary in the European Parliament is…
The same as everyone else's – a smidge under €7,000 a month. A colossal salary.
And what does the taxpayer buy for that money?
Hopefully, they can be assured I represent my voters and the Estonian state with dignity. I am working on what I talked about before elections, that I believe in a strong Europe, a united Europe and that it's good for Estonia.
Rainer Kerge managed to get under your skin by claiming you have gone from being on top to being a dot for you have fallen off the radar after taking 65,549 votes at the elections – as tends to happen to everyone who goes to the European Parliament. Is that unjust?
During the elections, people urged me not to disappear. I have tried to remain as visible as possible. I make weekly video appearances that others have now come to emulate. I try to post on social media, be visible in the Estonian press. I also try to speak my mind as often as I can.
The coronavirus crisis upended things. Before it, my normal rhythm saw me return from Brussels on Thursday evening or Friday and my weekends filled with meetings at schools, university, with the elderly… I really do move around quite a lot, make an effort. But if someone thinks that is not enough, I will make an even greater effort. (Laughs)
What is going on at the foreign ministry?
(Sighs) It saddens me to look and read about it. I will say straight away that I have not seen ambassadors' protest letters. I have knowingly stayed away and haven't even talked to the secretary general. What I think is based on what has been written in the media and a few conversations with former colleagues.
I believe there is a rift or misunderstanding here between the secretary general and ministers. I invited Rainer Saks to serve as secretary general of the foreign ministry [from the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service] and our cooperation was brilliant. In everything from staffing decisions to foreign policy. I have great respect for Rainer.
Today, I can see staff decisions that I would not have supported. However, my criticism is aimed at the minister who has deemed it either unnecessary or undignified to get to the bottom of things at the ministry. If only to talk to ambassadors.
By the time people start writing letters, mistakes have already been made, the right time has come and gone. And claims that ambassadors did not try to bring it up before – I don't believe that. I know our people and they tell you when they have a problem or when they see things than can be done better.
It is rather harsh when a diplomat writes on social media that the "ministry is reminiscent of North Korea."
It is indeed. Right now, it looks like the matter is being pinned on Secretary General Rainer Saks and that Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu has ordered the ministry to talk to public servants and fix things. That is not how these things work. The mistake was made by the entire management of the ministry and is as much the ministers' responsibility as it is the secretary's.
I do not approve of hiring people with no foreign service experience to work in administration (for example, the human resources department – ed.). I also do not approve of their salaries being far more generous than those of ministry insiders. I do not mean to say that diplomats somehow form a special category, but living and working abroad is different. And I claim that those who have not worked for the embassy cannot understand that.
I do not consider it right when the HR director talks to diplomats, appoints new ambassadors without any experience of working abroad. I would have given the post to a former ambassador and hired an HR professional to work as their deputy.
It is part of the fundamental debate over to which extent the ministry should be opened.
I have been in favor of opening the foreign ministry. When I served as foreign minister, we discussed opening certain positions – ambassador to the OECD, representatives to NATO and the EU – also to public servants from outside the ministry. It would ensure exchange of experience, boost competition inside the ministry and be a worthy challenge for other ministries…
Why couldn't someone from the finance ministry represent us at the OECD? Why couldn't the NATO envoy have a defense ministry or Defense Forces background? I have been in favor of opening, while it needs to be done sensibly and in a way people would understand.
We have such examples. Former foreign intelligence deputy director Kaimo Kuusk serves as ambassador to Ukraine today…
A good choice.
… and former defense ministry secretary general Joonatan Vseviov is ambassador to the USA.
He has moved back and forth between the foreign and defense ministries, whereas he started in the former.
Yes, these are all good choices. But they cannot be seen as the ministry having been opened. We need to carefully consider positions where we could allow people from other ministries to run.
To what extent are matters made worse by the fact the government's foreign policy is often difficult to explain? The Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa are like the pike, swan and crawfish in some matters.
That is how it is… I have been very critical of this in the past.
I do not know what the current government's Russia policy is. I cannot understand why we need to bow down to the Trump administration and reenact everything that he does. I also cannot fathom our foreign minister's immense respect for Hungary and Poland in a situation where cooperation could be pursued with other countries in the region. All of these things raise questions.
Foreign policy has become more dependent on its domestic counterpart and the two are intertwined. I'm not saying whether it's right or wrong. We cannot compare today to the 1990s when everyone had the same goal – to make it to the European Union and NATO.
Things are different today. But the situation makes life more difficult for diplomats and people involved in politics in general in terms of explaining where they stand. We need to talk. We learned a lesson with the UN migration compact [in late 2018]. While foreign minister at the time Sven Mikser conducted himself impeccably in terms of the legal side of things, he did not talk enough, did not explain matters enough. And look how much trouble that caused.
Before the UN migration compact, Estonia was used to foreign and security policy being up to relevant ministries and, to some extent, also Stenbock House and [the president in] Kadriorg – that they know how things should be and the public just makes a note of it…
But those times are gone. I believe people have the right to know how foreign policy decisions are made. For example, congressional hearings involving ambassadors are public in the U.S. Such hearings still take place behind closed doors at the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee in Estonia.
I'm not sure we should follow the American model as I believe a part of information would be withheld in that case. Estonia is a different country. But we need to talk more about foreign policy and in a language people can understand. There has been this conviction that security policy is like rocket science. But security is more than weapons, it's also medicine, information, media, climate… We need to listen to experts in different fields and talk to civil society activists.
Can you say who Estonia can look to for support in the world today?
Our allies are the same as before: the European Union, transatlantic relations.
Personally, it will be very interesting to see what will happen to the government's USA policy after presidential elections there. Let us presume – and I very much hope – that Joe Biden is elected president. How would we then talk about people of different nationalities and races? NATO soldiers who have been told to wear uniforms when walking the streets to avoid being assaulted? Attempts to turn back everything that has been taken too far during Trump's term, when emulating Trump or trying to…
I suppose we know where you stand in terms of who would be a better U.S. president for Estonia and Europe – Trump or Biden.
There can be no question here [Biden]. But that is a personal opinion and I respect the U.S. elections. Whoever they choose is the person we must work with. It's just that when it comes to Trump, should we really retweet every line he writes or try to emulate him in everything. We should rather look to common sense and balance.
I would like an honest answer. Had you been foreign minister of Estonia earlier this year, when the U.S. killed Iranian general Soleimani, what would you have done?
I would not have been among the first to exclaim how spot on the decision was.
You would have said nothing?
I do not have the information the Estonian foreign minister had at the time… Depending on that information, I would have consulted with colleagues before doing anything rash. But the fact remains that I would not have praised the call and would rather have been moderately critical, saying that such targeted killings are not in line with international law.
If the Americans say that they had information to suggest he was a national security threat and that a terror strike was imminent, I would have liked to see that data. I could have been persuaded to change my stance had an attack on a U.S. civilian site or embassy really been thwarted.
But again, I would not have rushed to condone or justify the strike. UN special procedures experts have found the strike to have been in violation of international law in hindsight.
Two University of Tartu students from Hongkong wrote a piece about China's new security law and the Hongkong protests. Have you read about it?
(Looking guilty) I have not.
The piece in English was briefly published on a University of Tartu blog before being removed at the behest of the university. Had the university come to you as the foreign minister for advice, what would you have recommended – to leave the piece criticizing the Chinese central government where it is or to take it down?
(Pauses) That is a very complicated question as put to the foreign minister.
The ministry was always asked for similar advice regarding visits by the Dalai Lama. We were very open about what that would result in. Officially receiving the Dalai Lama in Estonia would mean an end to all trade ties with China, people meeting him or shaking his hand immediately ending up on China's "blacklist" etc. We saw after the Dalai Lama's visit how China's relationship with the University of Tartu was terminated overnight. Those are the risks.
I would have discussed all the risks with the university's rector, while my recommendation would have been not to take down the article. In other words, I would have strongly urged the rector to say that while he understands the reality of the situation, there are some values and principles we will uphold even if the price is the severing of ties with China.
Angela Merkel, who has weathered all the crises of the past decade as German chancellor, has described the coronavirus crisis as the greatest challenge the EU has ever faced. Do you agree with her diagnosis?
I do. This kind of global crisis that concerns everyone, is unpredictable, the second, third or fourth waves of which we do not yet know and that has killed so many people – the EU has not seen its like before.
When did you realize this was a serious crisis? I recall how on March 4 you regarded as an overreaction the European Parliament's decision to close the parliament building to visitors.
I was critical because the parliament was planning on going to Strasbourg at the time. It was decided to close the doors in Brussels, while 2,500 people, including 705 MEPs, were supposed to fly to Strasbourg the following week. I do not think it was the right decision. You either keep both buildings open or close them both.
I think it dawned on me on March 14 or 15. I returned from Brussels on March 13 and spent two weeks in isolation, only taking the dog for walks in the woods. I had no contact with people. But when I took the car to the woods and saw no other vehicles, no people anywhere, I realized the situation was very serious. That is also why I contacted [women's voluntary defense organization] Naiskodukaitse to ask where I could help during a time when the European Parliament's workload was greatly reduced.
You helped take calls at the 1247 crisis hotline.
Yes, I worked there for a total of 80 hours. All those phone calls were like meetings with voters, except they didn't know they were talking to me. (Laughs) I got the chance to listen to people's problems, it was an incredible experience. It also left me feeling useful. There was talk of people on the front lines of the crisis. I find that the hotline operators were also on that front line.
The European Union was clinically dead so to speak during the first days of the crisis. There was no cooperation, solidarity was forgotten, with member states taking arbitrary action, goods stopped moving, people got stuck on borders and an air of general uncertainty." Those are your words. Do you stand by them?
Absolutely. I stand by these words and it is an indictment against the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and her cabinet. They have the levers to keep Schengen going, promote the common market, coordinate and organize cooperation. It was not done. There was dead silence for seven days.
Brussels has no direct public health authority. Responsibility lies with member states.
Indeed, it is very complicated. On the one hand, security, and we're talking about more than just healthcare here, is up to member states. Proposals to close borders come from member states. But there are rules for border closures. The Commission should have talked to member states for there to be some kind of coordination. What took place on the Polish border where our people were trapped in their cars for a few days was shameful, this should not happen in Europe.
Hey, Brussels quickly gave countries free rein to help struggling businesses, relaxed state aid and fiscal rules…
How quick was it really? The European Commission was shut down for seven days, at least as seen from the outside.
But you admit no one was ready for the crisis?
Every time there is a crisis, we say we were not prepared. Yes, perhaps we were not completely prepared, but border closures, common market – the European Commission has levers for how to act, how to ensure "green corridors" for transport of medicinal products, people to get home. We have all of these things but didn't use them.
Okay. But what did that show? That those who claim the EU is like the Soviet Union are wrong. On the contrary, the EU operated like a hive of independent countries.
And that is where this crisis raised a lot of questions concerning the future of Europe, in terms of what kind of an EU we want. Do we want the 27 [member states] to each make their own decisions and then see how they fit together, or do we want more coordination, more cooperation? To claim that this somehow infringes on Estonia's sovereignty is nonsense.
What would be your answer – what kind of an EU do we want?
We want the kind of EU where decisions are made where it is most sensible. Decisions regarding the local school on the local level, nationwide decisions on the state level, while foreign and security policy [various matters], crisis management and some healthcare issues should be handled on the EU level. Answering the question of which healthcare issues these should be I would leave to the experts.
Will the creation of the European Recovery Fund following the initiative of Germany and France help the European economy return to growth?
For me, the question is not the sum itself but rather where that money will be used and how soon.
Who is right, Andrus Ansip, who believes Angela Merkel is the best person to lead Europe out of this crisis, or Jaak Madison, who thinks that solutions proposed by the Commission and Germany would equal moving toward a European Federation or an empire?
The two opinions are very difficult to compare. One is by an experienced person who has served as the prime minister of a country and chairman of a major party for a long time. The other is by a young person who ran for the European Parliament only to be disappointed in its work a few months later and who unsuccessfully ran for deputy chairman of his party.
They cannot be compared in terms of life experience of knowledge. So, I'm with Andrus Ansip on this one.
Angela Merkel was received like a rock star in the European Parliament. People clapped in the end. Yes, she talked about the economy, but what people really liked is that she started with fundamental freedoms, human rights, democracy, solidarity. Only then did she turn to the economy.
In other words, Angela Merkel was clear when she said it is not right what is happening in the EU today, where we are surrendering ground in terms of democracy and human rights are not honored.
Do we have cause to be worried for our sovereignty in the EU?
Who has complete sovereignty? North Korea? No country is 100 percent sovereign if it communicates with other states. As soon as we sign our first international agreement or join an organization, we surrender a part of our sovereignty. It is like marriage – we also surrender a part of our independence when we get married, but you do it voluntarily because some matters are better handled together or because you want to do things with someone.
There is no absolute sovereignty and a balance is what we need to find. Personally, I'm in favor of certain Europe-wide taxes, such as a digital tax, while I believe tax policy needs to stay with member states. Social topics, healthcare, social welfare – we cannot harmonize those things on the EU level as we are too different. Education – while there are common requirements for bachelor's and master's curricula, it does not mean the EU gets to dictate what Estonian schools should be like.
I see a European Union where we have balance between local decision-making, the state and EU levels.
Politicians will be electing a new president for Estonia a year from now. Will you run?
It is possible to run for diplomatic office, apply for a job as a trolleybus operator or run for party chairman… But a person cannot run for president in Estonia. The candidates are proposed by politicians, so that question should be put to someone else…
Whether I would work as president of Estonia is a question I answered for myself back when I decided to run in 2016. Yes, I believe I was a good candidate and would make a good president, but the decision is not up to me.
But had you the chance to elect the president, who would you vote for?
That would depend on the candidates. However, I'm not in favor of direct presidential elections. The current procedure – where the president is elected by the parliament or the Electoral College – is good, while we should stop this ball from bouncing between the two. If the Riigikogu cannot agree on a president, it needs to be decided in the Electoral College. If they can elect a pope, Estonia needs to be able to elect a president.
Editor: Marcus Turovski