In 2024 we will celebrate 20 years since Estonia joined the European Union. Having seen a global pandemic, two financial crises, unfiltered globalization, unprecedented migration and the start of the devastating war in Ukraine, we can say that the world is more unpredictable and chaotic than 20 years ago, Dr Stefano Braghiroli writes in an article originally published in Universitas Tartuensis.
Following more than 50 years of brutal Soviet occupation, Estonians knew well what they were escaping from – an oppressive and intrusive regime, ubiquitous bureaucracy, a cripplingly centralized economy, the shadow of brutal imperialism, and international isolation – and shaped their restored country in exactly the opposite way: digital, uncomplicated, liberal, democratic and open to the world.
The new Estonia's openness translated externally into the country's full return to the European family as a committed member of the Western community and determined to promote the values of international cooperation and multilateralism by advancing European and transatlantic integration.
Since 2004, when the country joined both the EU and NATO, Estonia has built a reputation in Brussels of being a reliable, trusted, and deeply committed member. This has given Estonia the chance to exert an influence over EU policy that is much bigger than its physical size. At the same time, the return to Europe has multiplied Estonia's success and amplified its global voice.
So much has changed since that May of 2004, and the world we live in today is very different from the world back then. After experiencing a global pandemic, two financial crises and the effects of unfiltered globalization, unprecedented movements of peoples across continents, and the start of the most massive war of conquest in Europe since 1945, we can say that today's world is more unpredictable and chaotic than the one of 2004. However, with new challenges come also new opportunities to be protagonists in shaping our future.
Four challenges that define today's world much more prominently than in early 2000s are the preservation of our environment, harnessing technology for positive impact, navigating geopolitical complexities, and preserving our democracies.
Protecting our world for the next generations
As the awareness to address the challenge of climate change has grown globally since, the EU has progressively emerged as a leader and trend-setter in protecting our environment. The aim to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 is at the core of the European Green Deal. The Deal sets substantial emissions reductions and a carbon pricing mechanism and incentives for the industries that adopt sustainable practices. A Just Transition Fund aims to reduce the negative socio-economic impact of these policies on the most vulnerable sectors of the European societies, especially supporting regions dependent on fossil fuels such as Estonia's Ida-Viru County.
While the EU policies represent, ultimately, a compromise and the minimum common denominator between very diverse Member States' positions, their potential for positive change and power of agency cannot be underestimated.
EU climate diplomacy can be defined by two pivotal trajectories. Firstly, since the Paris climate agreement of 2015, the EU has asserted itself as a trailblazer in diffusing and promoting its environmental standards far beyond Europe's borders. A noteworthy instance is California adopting state rules comparable to the European Green Deal, surpassing the ambition of U.S. legislation. Secondly, the EU aims to maintain its economic competitiveness in the global markets while embracing the green transition. This involves increasing self-sufficiency and economic resilience and ensuring a secure supply of hi-tech resources and raw materials crucial for sustaining the transition from reliable partners.
The EU's ability to wield significant influence in shaping global climate actions, particularly in comparison to major players like China and the USA, hinges on the successful integration of these two priorities.
Our digital future
The EU is also emerging as a standard-setter in harnessing technology and the digital sphere for positive impact. While Europe has faced challenges in competing globally as an innovation powerhouse, lagging behind the USA and China due to economic factors and bureaucratic hurdles, it has excelled in crafting effective supranational legislation. This legislation aims to shape the impact of new technologies, safeguarding and enhancing citizens' rights in the digital realm. The widespread adoption of GDPR standards and the EU's pioneering legislation on AI signal that this trajectory is likely to persist into the future.
Furthermore, the EU has successfully extended the benefits of digital technologies and e-governance beyond individual member states. Estonia, in particular, has played a pivotal role as Europe's digital powerhouse, influencing the continent's digital future. Noteworthy initiatives driven by Estonia that will profoundly shape the future of European citizens include the finalization of the Digital Single Market and the launch of the European Digital Identity.
Geo-politics and the current state of international relations
Over the last decade, confrontation and competition have progressively substituted consensus and cooperation in the conduction of global affairs. The EU's global voice is not immune to the impact of this state of things as non-Western counter-hegemonic challengers are emerging, from Beijing to Moscow. When the temperature heats up, observers tend to focus on power dynamics and the imperium of the strong. Traditionally, the EU has proven to be an effective decision-maker in well-regulated and predictable contexts, where all players abide by the rules, and where decisions are not rushed. International affairs are increasingly the opposite of this: anarchic, unpredictable, and fast-evolving.
Unlike in 2004, when Moscow did not actively oppose the Baltic state's EU bids, starting from Euromaidan, Russia has progressively antagonized the EU and its engagement with the Eastern neighbors. In the eyes of Russia's ruling elites – there is very little difference between NATO and the EU, both seen as a direct threat to the Kremlin's grip on its former empire. As the continent witnesses its most destructive war of conquest since 1945, the EU has been able to undertake a geo-political revolution and its external action has changed more in the last 15 months than in the last 15 years.
Future of Europe and state of democracy
The wave of recent crises has taught us that when European liberal-democracies show lack of leadership and deliver ineffective responses, authoritarian regimes successfully engage in a global PR campaign to market their iron-fist model of decision-making free from the 'un-necessary' red tapes and checks and balances of the decadent West. The illiberal model has gained traction all across Europe in times of uncertainty.
Unsurprisingly, a growing number of disaffected voters and their representatives seem ready to give up their freedoms in exchange for unrestrained leadership of unlikely saviors and demagogues.
European integration – along with its freedoms and achievements – might end up being one of the most notable victims of this state of things. After spending years saying that the EU should be dismantled, nationalists across the continent increasingly blame it for not doing enough – often joined by mainstream politicians and the media.
As European Parliament elections approach, in 2024, it is worth recalling the words of the Schuman declaration that marks the beginning of the process of European integration: "World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it." Nowadays – more than ever – creative efforts shaped by citizens' democratic voices are needed, proportionate to the challenges we face.
Amplifying Estonian and Baltic voices
While usually considered among the most reliable EU members, Estonia and the Baltic states have historically faced challenges in shaping the EU's foreign policy and a global perspective due to their peripheral location and complex relationship with Moscow, shaped by painful historical path dependency.
However, since the onset of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Estonia has demonstrated that a good combination of geopolitical understanding, clear objectives, and high credibility can overcome marginality. This approach not only amplifies the smaller voices of the Baltic states but also grants them unprecedented centrality and influence in policy-shaping and decision-making.
The credibility of Estonia and its Baltic counterparts within the broader Western community is further strengthened by the combination of unwavering support for Ukraine and a steadfast commitment to the values of liberal democracy. This provides Estonia – unlike other partners in the region – with a robust moral foundation to counter Russia's imperialist expansionism, addressing not only security concerns but also confronting the clash between liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarianism.
Amidst the backdrop of growing illiberalism in Europe, Estonia is poised to amplify its influence as a leading liberal voice in the region. Furthermore, its credibility as a pioneer of e-governance infrastructure and services, positions it at the forefront of tackling one of the key challenges of our times – revitalizing European democracy.
The positive spill-over of Estonia's innovative digital solutions has the potential not only to modernize European democracy for the 21st century but also to enhance its resilience against emerging and longstanding threats. In this digital age, Estonia's contributions are also instrumental in fostering increased citizen participation and strengthening the foundations of European democracy.
As a happy coincidence and a kind of proof of Estonia's success story the jubilee of Estonia joining the EU coincides with Tartu becoming Capital of Culture next year.
Editor: Marcus Turovski
Source: Universitas Tartuensis