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Riho Terras: The European mainstream's 'Wir schaffen das' feeding populists

Riho Terras MEP.
Riho Terras MEP. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Talking about Europe's federalization is playing right into the hands of populists. It fuels anti-EU sentiment as electorates in all Member States find it unpopular and unacceptable, MEP Riho Terras writes.

Several mainstream European parties have in recent years realized that unchecked migration needs to be stopped. Unfortunately, it has taken too long to come to this realization. Just a few years ago, this kind of policy was considered extreme and discriminative.

Alas, there are other policies in the case of which mainstream parties have not yet seen the light. They are Europe's federalization and the green transition. Once the European mainstream comes back down to Earth regarding those two topics, voters will no longer have reason to support populists.

The Sweden Democrats said back in 2015 that unchecked immigration would lead to social segregation, a spike in crime rate and the spread of Islam. This caused a storm of indignation among mainstream parties. The Sweden Democrats were openly dubbed extremists, right-wing populists and xenophobes.

Many mainstream parties in Europe supported Angela Merkel's "Wir schaffen das" or "We can manage this" policy when it came to war refugees. Talk of the spread of Islamism and a growing crime rate was working against it, which is why critics of the open doors policy were accused of all manner of phobias. Sweden was the other country besides Germany to stand out with a very open doors policy.

Who could have imagined at the time that Sweden's social democratic Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson would in 2022 use the rhetoric of "radical right-wing populists" when talking about the failure of immigration policy, spread of Islamism and growing crime rate (Reuters, April 28, 2022)? By now, it has become the position of the European political mainstream compared to which Merkel's "Wir schaffen das" sounds extreme.

The open doors policy seemed a radical approach to many voters back in 2015. Supply followed demand and populist forces became popular everywhere virtually overnight. Some had and continue to have friendly ties to the Kremlin's bloodthirsty dictator.

The "Wir schaffen das" of European treaties

This has led to a situation in Europe where some Member States are ruled by forces who sympathize with the Kremlin. For example, Hungary is obstructing European aid for Ukraine. This has led to calls to scrap the EU's unanimity principle in decision-making and opt for majority votes instead.

Isamaa is categorically opposed to this step. For a small country like Estonia, its EU veto right is the only guarantee larger Member States talk to us and heed our opinion. Losing it would lessen Estonia's foreign policy influence by many times, which would be a threat to the nation. We must not be left to our own devices.

So far, the government has been of the mind that the unanimity principle must remain. But Estonian MEPs have also expressed different opinions. Urmas Paet said during a televised debate on December 6 that he would support ending the unanimity principle for foreign and security policy. Marina Kaljurand went even further in suggesting it could even be dropped for tax-related matters.

Taking away Member States' say in foreign and defense matters as well as taxation is a direct step toward federalization. Luckily, it is clear today that talk of amending the main treaties constitutes little more than replacement activity today.

But talking about the federalization of Europe will only play into the hands of new Ficos, Orbans and other populists. It stokes anti-EU sentiment as electorates in all Member States find it unpopular and unacceptable.

Plotting a radical course for federalization would spell the end of the European Union. Countries will simply quit the union if their right to decide their own taxes is taken away. To avoid this, so-called mainstream parties need to think long and hard on what constitutes extremism and what doesn't.

We need to arrive at a rational position in terms of what European societies find acceptable. This would end the demand for new Ficos and Orbans as well as the need to come up with decision-making schemes and flexible phrasing in order to get past them.

The "Wir schaffen das" of the green transition

The green transition is an even better example of a modern "Wir schaffen das," especially in Nordic climate. Talk of switching to 100 percent renewable energy in Estonia by 2030 or even 2050 is extremist and utopian. And yet it is the clear plan and message of the ruling coalition.

It is impossible without completely destroying Estonia's competitive ability. As explained by Indrek Neivelt on "Terevisioon" (link in Estonian) on December 7, Estonia's competitiveness rests on having cheaper power than in Central Europe. Renewable energy makes that impossible. Solar farms are some 25-30 percent less effective in Estonia compared to countries further south. Their climate also forces countries in the north to consume more energy because it is cold and dark for half the year here.

Estonia and the Nordics cannot compare their energy use to Central or Southern Europe. There, energy use spikes in the summer for the purposes of cooling. But it is possible to switch off the AC and sweat a little when the price gets out of hand. It is not possible to switch off the heat in the winter in Northern Europe because people would freeze to death. Consumption spikes are more extreme and electricity a far more vital resource in our region.

For as long as there is no suitable nuclear power option for Estonia, we cannot make do without oil shale power plants. The same goes for wind power. Until we lack a technology that could store power for longer than just a few hours in our climate, placing our hopes on it [wind power] would be the height of folly.

Unfortunately, the government's green transition rhetoric is reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's corn growing campaign, which also failed because climatic conditions were ignored. Orders, bans and ideologies do not alter the laws of nature.

The Estonian government's "Wir schaffen das" goal is a full and uncompromising green transition the only goal of which is to be on the cutting edge without any heed to the consequences. We can already see countries dialing back initial targets and opting for more common sense approaches to save their economies elsewhere in Europe.

If the government really intends to execute its insane plans, the Estonian economy and competitive ability will find themselves in a deep and systemic crisis just a few years from now. That is when we will hear [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas say how a radical green transition was foolish and how we'll have to hike taxes even more to address the consequences. If mainstream parties want the people to stop voting for "extremists," they should end their own extremist policy first. Come back down to Earth!

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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