Opinion: Who and with whom — How Estonia's EU story began

Kaja Tael.
Kaja Tael. Source: Author's private collection.

Fifteen years in the European Union has passed in a blink of an eye, writes Kaja Tael, Estonia's Permanent Representative to the EU. Upon joining, Estonia tended to look with some awe at Finland and Sweden — the two countries which offered the most help in preparing for membership — as experienced member states. Yet, in 2004 when Estonia joined, those two countries hadn't been in the EU for even a decade at that point (they joined in 1995). By this measure, Estonia is already an old hand, Tael writes.

Indeed, there is now no distinction between Estonia, or Finland, or Austria (which joined in 1995 as well) in terms of substantive positions and working methods. As was the case with us in Estonia and our relationship with the Nordic countries, we are serious about helping out current candidate nations — even though those countries, in the western Balkans, are not neighbors.

What has life in the EU really brought?

Fifteen years is not enough to clear the decks of the difficult memories concerning accession — in fact we can put ourselves in the would-be member states' shoes. History (and not only that!) also speaks of relations with our eastern neighbors, who we are trying to support (e.g. Ukraine — ed.).
The great expansion of 2004 was a special thing, further reversing the consequences of World War II. We thus have reason not only to celebrate this small anniversary this year, but also to celebrate our actual membership.

One of the commonest questions back in 2004 was what Estonia had to start working with, in its membership. Smaller blocks and neighbouring states in a similar position, were the answer, in the EU. However, fears were in the air that the Western European countries were to be confronted with an Eastern European bloc that might start to hinder development.

However, we were not so "bloc-minded," and generally responded to the question of who we would work with with the answer "with whoever."

Numerous ongoing studies have examined which countries are cooperating and drawn conclusions about the nature of the EU, that homogeneity is a long way off. One spin on this is to note that the beauty of the EU lies in its diversity. Conversely, a perception in significant differences in living standards or unequal competition conditions in the EU's internal market, or in agriculture.

In terms of EU budgets and common policies, Estonia has taken a big step towards the average development level in the union, crossing the magic 75 percent mark, after which subsidies start to decrease. We have good reason to feel joy and pride, and not to regret how things have gone. Nevertheless, we are still among the net beneficiaries of the EU budget, not the net contributors.

Again, since most of the countries which are net recipients are newer member states from eastern Europe, are there fears about confrontation between the two halves of the continent? This is all the more the case since interests are not merely expressed in the budget, but also have a relationship to, for instance, various different neighboring states. The eastern region of the EU may be concerned about the well-being of Ukraine and other bordering states, but migratory pressures from the south shore of the Mediterranean, and beyond in Africa, place the harshest burden on the Mediterranean EU nations, and the wealthiest western European ones.

That said, the economic crisis of 2009 onwards hit Greece, Portugal and Ireland much more heavily than it did Poland, for instance. The "traditional" ambivalent attitude towards Russia seems to have coalesced on one side, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

By way of example, the European Center at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden has been studying EU cooperation models since 2003. This year's analysis has found that the various geographic groups have always been in existence, but that so far as common denominators go, it is usually the cultural, linguistic, mentality etc. proximity which shapes interests and priorities, though this in also turn can prove attractive to those in more distant locales as well.

There is no inherent Eastern (or Western) Europe. The North-South axis is at least as distinct as the East-West one. Amongst all of them are larger powers, rather than some sort of geographically centralized power.

Estonian thinking has not changed

It is a characteristic of the EU that a larger state always needs partners since, without them, it would prove easy to block initiatives (the voting model also takes into account population). While German, France and Britain were always the dominant states up to now, the model is changing and shifts and realignments are expected. In other words, the question of cooperation partners in the light of Brexit is as topical as the major expansion of 2004.

Estonia's thinking has not substantively changed during that time. We are still ready to work with all who wish to. We can be found going to meeting tables with representatives from France one day, Germany or Portugal the next, and they with us. In particular with regard to digital matters, Estonia is often looked toward for direction.

Estonia has also learned that it is always worthwhile to both look for support and to offer it closer to home. Our home is the entire Baltic Sea region. In addition to Latvia and Lithuania, we often find commonalities with Finland, Sweden and Denmark, despite, for example, the great difference in living standards, or the length of time they have been in the EU.

We also have some occasional surprises in the mix. For instance, Luxembourg has proved to be one of the countries we have done the most cooperation with.

All of this shows us that Estonia's integration into the EU has been a success story. This also should mean that the EU has been good for us too. As once you have chosen your extended family, you should ensure that your family continues to do well too.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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