Siim Kallas: EU wants to effect true digital and climate turns

Siim Kallas in the Riigikogu.
Siim Kallas in the Riigikogu. Source: ERR

We have plotted a clear course in the European Union for strengthening Europe's digital sovereignty and laying down our own standards instead of copying others. The plan is to invest in ultra-high-speed internet links and develop super processing of big data to create innovative solutions for medicine, transport and the environment, Siim Kallas says in a speech delivered in the Riigikogu.

We are living challenging times. The EU has come face to face with several crises in the past decade. We had the financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis in 2015 and have been in an unprecedented healthcare and economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus since last spring. Every hurdle has required us to complement policies and render cooperation more effective.

We have learned much from the coronavirus crisis. A coordinated activity plan, opening of borders, a recovery plan agreement made in record time and a common vaccines procurement demonstrate the importance and benefit of cooperation. Without the EU joint vaccines tender, we would be faced with chaos where small states would inevitably be on the losing side. Nevertheless, more than a few things have gone wrong.

Tarrying vaccine procurements, suppliers failing to perform contracts, third countries resorting to protectionist anti-European measures – all of it suggests that the EU must reinforce its independent capacity when it comes to vaccines and medicines in the future.

It is a most unfortunate development that EU member states are procuring vaccines from manufacturers the products of whom have not passed European Medicines Agency quality and safety checks. The question is not of the quality of these vaccines but rather certain countries' desire to ignore the EU as a phenomenon and find ways of dealing with member states separately, thus dividing the union.

In spite of what was a difficult year, important future-oriented green and digital initiatives were introduced. These will create a cleaner and more sustainable environment for future generations.

The European Commission put together the historical Recover Europe plan and an updated long-term budget proposal in April of last year. Member states' capacity for restarting their economies after the crisis differs, which is why equal opportunities need to be created for everyone as a functional common market benefits all member states.

The Commission presented its fiscal plan on May 27 last year. It is historical both in terms of its volume – €1.824 trillion – and its message emphasizing togetherness and solidarity.

Many were skeptical in terms of premiers and heads of government being able to reach an agreement on the long-term budget quickly, while it was completed by the end of July. Member states will have to approve cost-sharing decisions for the recovery package to take effect. The decision will be made in the Riigikogu in Estonia.

Estonia was successful at budget negotiations and managed to hit targets in several areas. While EU support for Estonia was forecast to fall for this period, negotiations culminated in the support sum growing from €6.2 billion to €6.8 billion. Estonia will also receive an additional estimated €1.5 billion from the Recovery Fund.

It is also important to point out that Estonia managed to secure a 30 percent cost-sharing rate instead of the European Commission's initial suggestion of 45 percent. This will bring projects forward and lower total national cost-sharing by roughly €1 billion.

One important achievement is securing additional funding for Rail Baltic and a favorable financing rate. We secured an additional €1.56 billion for the Rail Baltic project. The railroad will be Estonia's expressway to the heart of Europe and help us move closer to hitting climate targets, has a significant security dimension and works to boost cohesion between states from Finland to Germany.

An agreement with the European Parliament was reached regarding the final difference last week and additional funding for Rail Baltic from the Connecting Europe Facility.

Digital and green turns

EU budget period negotiations and their intricacies were a recurring topic in the Riigikogu European Union Affairs Committee throughout last year.

The new budget period and recovery plan resources need to contribute to two important goals – the digital and green turns. A third of the recovery plan and the entire EU budget is aimed at moving closer to climate targets. It will also help us render the Estonian economy greener and more environmentally friendly.

Estonia is looking at €3.3 billion for activities sporting an environmental dimension, including resources from the completely new Just Transition Fund. Estonia will be receiving €340 million from the fund that is the greatest sum per capita in the EU. The money will support transitioning to a more environmentally friendly economy in Ida-Viru County.

The green turn is a joint EU venture. The European Union has set the ambitious goal of turning Europe into the world's first climate neutral continent and serve as an example. This means lowering carbon emissions by up to 95 percent compared to 1990.

The green turn was not born yesterday nor is it happening somewhere else. The goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 was decided with the participation of the Estonian prime minister back in October 2014 and approved as a binding obligation in May 2018.

The new stage in the green turn ambition was declared by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her program speech on July 16, 2019. The Commission passed a blanket strategy for legislative initiatives in different fields in the European Green Deal in December of that year.

The so-called climate action for achieving climate neutrality was proposed by the Commission in March 2020. The Riigikogu EU Affairs Committee approved Estonia's positions for the Green Deal and climate action in June.

Estonia set itself one of the most ambitious goals in the EU of curbing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2020 compared to levels in 1990. Statistics shows that dialing back emissions does not translate into an economic setback. Estonia has grown its economy by 60 percent while reducing emissions by 60 percent in the last 30 years.

The European Commission presented its long-term renovation strategy in October 2020. Performing the strategy in full would allow Estonia to achieve 60 percent energy saving and curb CO2 emissions by 90 percent.

In addition to climate targets, the renovation plan helps liven up the economy. Over half of resources allocated for renovation will go toward salaries in the construction and material manufacturing sectors. This will boost employment and consumption and help the economy recover faster.

The climate action bill passed its first reading in the Council of Ministers in October and December. This was followed by the European Council approving the new climate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent instead of the previous goal of 40 percent. These proposals have now reached the phase of three-way negotiations between the Council, Commission and the European Parliament.

The Commission has come up with several strategies in connection with the Green Deal regarding which the Riigikogu EU Affairs Committee has shaped its position. Examples include the biodiversity strategy, Farm to Fork Strategy, sustainable chemicals strategy, energy systems integration strategy and hydrogen strategy, European industry strategy, offshore renewable energy strategy and circular economy strategy.

Upcoming Green Deal initiatives also include a forestry strategy, zero waste strategy, methane emissions reduction strategy and the EU adjusting to climate change strategy. The strategies themselves bring no obligations and are roadmaps for future legislative initiatives.

The green turn is a major ambition the realization of which started over a decade ago, while progress is slow. A lot of work needs to be done still. We counted a total of 47 Green Deal initiatives, with some already in the works and some in the pipeline. We stand ready to discuss new legislative proposals and strategies in the Riigikogu.

We are living in turbulent times – transitioning from an industrial economy into a digital one and from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Estonia has been talking about the possibilities of e-governance and the importance of digital identity for over a decade. The Tallinn e-governance declaration was signed during Estonia's Council presidency. For the common digital market to work, every member state citizen must have a safe e-identity and be able to provide a digital signature. Progress is slow. However, the coronavirus crisis has vividly demonstrated the importance of digital solutions and skills.

Estonia and the World Health Organization have launched a digital vaccination certificate project that will make it possible to acknowledge the immunization certificates of different countries quickly and effectively and make it easier for people to travel.

Good choices are key

Last February, the European Commission introduced the EU digital future strategy the aim of which is to make sure citizens and entrepreneurs benefit from the digital transition.

We have plotted a clear course for strengthening Europe's digital sovereignty and laying down our own standards instead of following others. The aim is to invest in ultra-high-speed internet and develop super big data processing to create innovative solutions for medicine, transport and the environment.

The goal is for Europe to be at the forefront of digital development in the world. Estonia shares these ambitions and is hoping for rapid developments and cooperation from other member states.

The Riigikogu EU Affairs Committee has also completed a digital turn in the coronavirus crisis. Committee sittings have been held online for almost a year. The committee held 59 of its total 73 sittings virtually in 2020.

There were seven joint sittings and 25 parliamentary hearings of which 19 were held virtually. The committee provided its take on 34 EU initiatives. Estonia's positions have been adjusted based on the opinion of Riigikogu committees.

I want to thank all members of the EU Affairs Committee, colleagues and guests for making sure our work could continue unhindered.

I would also like to draw attention to a major undertaking in the European Parliament and Commission. I am talking about organizing the Conference on the Future of Europe. Member state parliaments need to shape a position regarding the plan.

The first question is whether there is any sense in having a conference on the future of Europe. Who and from which institutions would be sitting down was also long on the agenda. However, last week's joint declaration seems to have solidified the general structure.

We still have no clarity in terms of the problems the conference aims to solve. This is not the first time the EU has assembled high-level expert groups to come up with proposals for the future of Europe. All have been forgotten.

It is not difficult to put together a list of major problems in the EU in which the interests of member states and European Parliament factions clash. It is hard to believe such a conference could come up with workable compromises. Major compromises are born on the level of member state governments, the European Council. But we will see.

Despite difficulties brought on by the coronavirus crisis, the EU wants to achieve true digital and green turns, to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and create a cleaner and more sustainable environment for future generations.

We have never before had such fiscal resources for investments, which is why making the right choices is key. Children and grandchildren born today will come to depend on our choices and actions.

I wish all of us far sight and bold exchanges for rising to this challenge. Let us use the challenges we are faced with to create a stronger Europe. The European Union is everyone's project to which everyone can contribute.

Allow me to quote former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas: "Europe must celebrate hope for the future, serve as the solution and inspire future generations. Just as when we hear the word "Estonia," so too must the word "Europe" speak to the soul. And I believe that the Riigikogu as the body representing the people needs to be involved in the work as closely as possible moving forward." Golden words.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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