Opinion: A challenging year awaits Estonia and the EU

Taavi Toom.
Taavi Toom. Source: Author's personal collection.

The European Union (EU) faces a complicated year, writes Taavi Toom of Estonia 200, much harder than the previous year. In addition to the European Parliamentary elections in May, which will put the future of European cooperation to the test, elections of the heads of no less than five major EU institutions, plus the presidents of six Member States, as well as seven parliamentary elections, including Estonia's in March, are also likely to influence the direction and atmosphere of future cooperation.

In addition to internal tensions, including that surrounding the future long-term budget, the EU remains under strong external pressure from all directions – Russia's aggressive behavior in the EU's eastern neighbourhood and meddling in EU internal affairs, continuing instability and migration pressure in the south, tensions in transatlantic tensions with the US in the West and with Brexit to the northwest. All of this also affects Estonia.

Elections to the European Parliament (EP) at the end of May are the most important of these, bearing in mind the future of the EU and the question – what can each of us do in this context? In fact, these are most likely the most crucial EP elections in the history of this representative body, a body which the people of Europe have been able to elect directly for 40 years now.

Voter turnout needs to remain steady

These are also the first EP elections in which the UK almost certainly will not participate; 27 of the UK's 73 seats are to be redistributed amongst the EU27, with Estonia getting one more seat taking the total to seven.

It is curious that, although the role of the EP has grown significantly over the last decade, election turnout has simultaneously gone down. Whereas in 2009, 43.9% of citizens in Estonia eligible to vote participated in the EP elections, in 2014, voter turnout fell to 36.5%, below the EU average of 42.5%.

All the while, participation in the national elections to the Riigikogu has remained steady at 63-64%. Hopefully this trend will be maintained this year, since more than ever is at stake.

It can already be said today, that the main issue of the May EP elections is not a right or left-wing world view, but whether the EU is seen as a problem or a solution.

This is also the case in Estonia, where there are political forces at work which, instead of cooperation between Member States, would like to see more isolation and building of walls, in the old-fashioned manner of the nation state.

Not time for burying heads in the sand

In their opinion, Estonia is a bit like a snail that can retreat into its own shell in the face of a terrifying world, thinking that the ocean waves will not disturb it. If, in the opinion of some, global migration can be tackled by burying your head in the sand, has a solution been found also for climate change? Not in the view of Estonia 200. We think and say loud and clear in our program that the best solutions to common challenges can only be found through cooperation between nations, both in Europe and globally.

Even though the economies of European countries have fared well in recent years and the EU as a whole has come out as a winner in globalisation, not all citizens feel this in the same way.

Often, the EU is seen as the culprit; sometimes rightly, often not. If the financial sector of a country is, to put it mildly, on shaky ground, and public debt cannot grow indefinitely, then Europe is to blame! If Europe's external borders are not protected properly in some places and other countries do not want to receive an unregulated flux of migrants, then naturally, others are to blame. Or, if in our own country, we feel that regulations have gone too far, it's easy to point the finger at the EU, even though we know that only a quarter of Estonian legislation is of EU origin; the rest is our own creation.

It's interesting to note that most political movements which are critical of the socio-economic developments in their countries (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, in Germany, Front National in France, Podemos in Spain, or the Five Star movement in Italy) are also, to a greater or lesser extent, opposed to the EU.

At the same time, different studies show that the stronger national institutions are, in the eyes of the public, the stronger the Euro-scepticism which prevails. And vice versa (with the notable exception of Italy), the weaker the national institutions are perceived to be, the stronger the support for the EU.

EP likely to see power balance shift

The forthcoming EP elections are moreover likely to bring about changes in traditional power relations in Europe. It is expected that the European People's Party (EPP) will remain the largest group in the European Parliament, but will lose a large number of seats. Socialists seeing in a downward trend in support all over Europe and are likely to surrender second place in the EP to Liberals, who number just as many as the Conservatives in the European Council, ie. among the heads of states and government of the EU Member States.

Various populist movements and opponents of the EU, especially in larger Member States with equally large representations in the EP, are on the rise and becoming an important force on the European political scene. The Greens and a few other niche parties will most likely maintain their current status. A fragmented and incapacitated parliament is definitely not good for Estonia, however, but pro-European forces may still achieve a majority.

Much depends on voter turnout, what the demographic of voter turnout will be after the first warmer days of May. This is especially important in countries like Estonia and Finland, where parliamentary elections will have just taken place.

In some countries, such as Belgium, parliamentary elections are combined with European elections. In others (Denmark, Poland, Greece), they are held later.

European Parliamentary elections are also like a litmus test of how EU states, both individually and collectively, can stand up to potential external interference. Recent years in Europe and elsewhere have shown that there is an attempt to influence public opinion in almost every election. Practice has shown that it works (at least in part), therefore it is attempted over and over again via various different means.

Estonia 15 years in the EU now

In each Member State, there may be a different mixture of half-truths and even outright lies, which can cause confusion and anxiety in society. In Estonia too, during the election year, one should be very critical in scrutinizing where information comes from and whether it's true.

Estonia is the only EU Member State, where both national and European elections are held electronically, which could also make us an attractive target for some. If we make it through the Riigikogu and European Parliament elections with flying colours, fair and secure elections free of external influence could become our new business card, much as e-governance has been so far.

Estonia's Information System Authority, together with other Member States, has compiled a very welcome list of recommendations on how to secure EP elections at various stages, from voter registration to the announcement of voting results.

Nothing would discredit European democracies more than the inability to protect themselves. 

Estonia celebrates 15 years of EU membership on 1 May. We have been able to find and secure our place in it. The EU and its associated rights, obligations and freedoms have become an integral part of our daily lives in that time. The future of Estonia and Europe depend on every one of us. If you share the same view, please come and vote for pro-European forces.

Taavi Toom is a former diplomat who is running for Estonia 200 at the 3 March elections. He is party spokesperson on Foreign and European affairs. The party is contesting its first ever elections in March, having been formed in 2018.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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