Estonia's refusal to join French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Latvian and Lithuanian leaders, in signing a declaration aimed at preserving European Union democracy, is the result of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) wanting to placate coalition partner the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), portal Delfi writes.
President Macron had been on a three-day official visit to Lithuania and Latvia, ahead of Thursday's EU leaders' meeting in Brussels, in a tour which was dubbed a Baltic States' visit, but excluded Estonia, portal Delfi reports (link in Estonian).
Estonia and France generally have what appears to be, on the surface, good relations; not only does Estonia have a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council – where France is a permanent member – but also both nations have supported each other militarily, France with NATO personnel joining the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroup at Tapa on more than one occasion, and Estonia via its contribution of an infantry platoon to the French-led counter-insurgency Operation Barkhane in Mali.
The Elysee Palace issued a comprehensive statement signed by Macron and his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nauseda, along with the prime minister of Latvia, Krisjanis Karins, but no signature from President Kersti Kaljulaid, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) or any other Estonian leader was present, Delfi reports, prompting speculation that Ratas and his coalition allies had turned their noses up at the declaration.
Joint statement: Cyberattacks, misinformation, electoral interference all threats to EU
The joint statement, signed by the presidents of France and Lithuania and by the Latvian prime minister, referred to a July 2019 announcement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that measures to protect European democratic institutions from external intervention were a priority for her, and, the recent joint statement added, a continuing rise in cyberattacks, disinformation and the coronavirus crisis has made this even more essential.
This will build on work started in 2018, with a code of practice and election cooperation network to help member states pick up on threats to the European elections (of 2019), and should be bolstered by further cooperation and solidarity – potentially with a joint election protection mechanism twinned with a cadre of national experts on call for any member state whose electoral and democratic processes were potentially under threat.
It also referenced other counter-disinformation institutions already set up, such as the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, and the Self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation - the first EU-wide effort to tackle online disinformation.
More steps which should be taken include further combatting of disinformation campaigns, correct GDPR-compliant data sharing, and also revising the rules on national political parties' funding, in particular with regard to funding coming from outside the EU.
A common charge levelled against Ratas' Center Party is that it has strong links with the Russian Federation, given its still-extant agreement signed with the ruling United Russia party. EKRE leader and finance minister Martin Helme has recently faced criticism over hiring prominent U.S. lawyer and former prosecutor and FBI chief Louis Freeh to represent Estonia in U.S. money laundering cases, primarily because Freeh had had dealings in his line of work with lawyers representing major Russian money launderers.
Delfi: Ratas turned nose up at the statement
Delfi cites U.S. portal Politico, which it says covered the Macron visit to Lithuania and Latvia, and which reported that on asking Paris why Estonia had not co-signed the statement, was told that Estonia had been invited to, but declined on the grounds of domestic coalition policies.
Whether this was the reason for Macron's no-show in Estonia was not reported.
Macron was last in Tallinn in autumn 2017, Delfi wrote, ahead of Estonia taking on the mantle of the Council of the European Union presidency for six months, which, Delfi speculates, could be the reason he skipped the Estonian capital this time, but adds that diplomatic sources say that the coalition with EKRE – which was not in place in 2017 – was at the heart of the matter, despite a pledge not to change foreign policy course when the coalition agreement was signed between the two parties, together with Isamaa, at the end of April 2019.
One irony is that Estonia's foreign policy stance has for years been to lean on the EU for more help and support in combatting misinformation, as well as to keep Brussels better informed on cyber issues and those facing the union's eastern frontier in return.
Delfi says that on asking whey the application was not signed, the government's communications office gave little away, simply presenting a fait accompli that said: "The application [to sign the agreement] was made during a state visit. The President of France did not pay a visit to Estonia this time."
Ratas: Delfi is wrong, Franco-Estonian relations strong
Ratas responded to the Delfi piece on his social media account late on Thursday afternoon, writing: "Today, I also spoke to President of France Emmanuel Macron about this [situation] in Brussels (where Ratas was at the EU leaders' summit – ed.). We acknowledged that Estonia and France are very close friends and our cooperation is close in many areas. For example, our defense forces stand together in a military operation in Mali."
Ratas said he is also due to visit France soon.
"We are currently preparing for my visit to France. Estonia plans to conclude a bilateral strategic partnership declaration with that country. It intends to address cooperation in the fields of defense, cyber, digital, culture, education and research," he added.
Ratas said the Delfi piece was wrong, in that the reasons for not signing the declaration were not political, but rather its content, particularly with regard to regulation of the domestic media, including social media, as well as of artificial intelligence (AI).
"Delfi is wrong. On a government level, the statement on combating misinformation has not been discussed with France. There were clear substantive, rather than political, reasons for our omission from the statement. A possible joint statement was discussed ... at the official level in June. At the time, there was no talk of the level or time at which this declaration could be adopted.
"Although Estonia could have supported the statement in most of its aspects, we could not agree with its content as a whole at that time. The text called for disproportionate regulatory regulation of the media to combat misinformation, with legal obligations for publications and platforms, as well as sanctions. The regulation of AI proposed in the application was also not in line with Estonia's approach. The positions of France, as well as Latvia and Lithuania, on these issues have so far been different from Estonia."
Delfi: Macron statement not a one-off example
Delfi also noted what it said was a pattern for Estonia not partaking in EU and other international-level joint initiatives and declarations, including a recent pledge on nature conservation acceded to by 64 countries including 23 EU nations (Minister of Environment Rene Kokk is an EKRE member, Delfi noted) and a diplomatic call on Poland to uphold LGBTQ+ rights.
Macron had taken the plan and accompanying statement for the protection of EU democracies far and wide, and it has been adopted by leaders from over 20 EU nations from all over the union, as well as from the U.K., Canada and the U.S.
Editor: Andrew Whyte