Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London on Tuesday, becoming the first EU head of government to meet with the U.K.'s new prime minister in person.
The Government Communication Unit previously announced that at their meeting, the two heads of state would discuss bilateral Estonian-British relations, including cooperation in the defense and security policy field, as well as cyber-cooperation and topical EU-related matters.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu had previously told the BBC that while the "reality" was the EU withdrawal agreement including the Irish border backstop that had been jointly agreed by the remaining 27 EU member states, the need nevertheless remained for continued dialogue in the coming weeks in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
'No specific demands of Estonia in Brexit'
Following his meeting with Johnson, Ratas gave an interview to ERR journalist Johannes Tralla.
Johannes Tralla: It is remarkable that Boris Johnson's first meeting with a foreign leader was with Estonia's prime minister. What did you talk about?
Jüri Ratas: It was a constructive and meaningful meeting. I talked about bilateral relations between Estonia and the U.K., which throughout history have been very close. Currently at their peak, in terms of defense and security cooperation in connection with [NATO's enhanced Forward Presence], air policing and various military exercises. Likewise cooperation with the British in Afghanistan.
There was talk of how to develop cooperation in artificial intelligence in medicine, and we considered possible options for cooperation between Nordic and Baltic countries and the U.K. I of course invited Boris Johnson to the Tallinn Digital Summit, and I invited him to Tallinn so that he could visit British troops as prime minister as well.
JT: Did you talk about Brexit as well? Johnson is expecting significant concessions on the EU's part. What is he expecting from Estonia?
JR: Yes, we talked about Brexit and the NATO summit. Our positions regarding Brexit are different from those of the Brits in that nobody will benefit from the U.K.'s departure — neither the U.K. nor Europe.
I really liked something he said — he confirmed that leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe. He stressed ongoing close relations between the EU and the U.K. going forward. Especially in foreign and security policy. The prime minister also confirmed that EU citizens' rights must be ensured following Brexit, and also highlighted the 15,000 Estonians currently living in the U.K.
JT: What concessions does Johnson want from the EU? There has been talk of changing the wording of the Irish backstop. Do you see any possibility of this happening?
JR: We have to bear in mind that he has been British prime minister for barely two weeks. It would be a bit premature to draw any final conclusions right now. It is clear that this so-called backstop is not acceptable to Brits. It was said today that it is unthinkable that EU would start renegotiating the exit deal. We have basically reached an impasse, in the context of Oct. 31.
JT: What would a no-deal Brexit mean for the EU and Estonia?
JR: A no-deal Brexit would mean a great deal of unresolved issues for the EU, Estonia and the U.K. — a great deal of concerns for the future. Starting with the border issue, which would remain unresolved between Northern Ireland and Ireland, as well as people's and citizens' rights, educational and employment opportunities, business environment-related matters. Financial matters would go unresolved as well.
At the same time, the British prime minister stated very clearly that he doesn't see a future in taking the deal that has been rejected several times already back [to the British Parliament]."
JT: Do I understand correctly that you don't see any good opportunities for avoiding a no-deal Brexit?
I am thoroughly convinced that the EU will do everything it possibly can to ensure an exit with a deal, and I am sure that the British prime minister and his team are trying to do the same.
JT: How would you describe the challenge facing Johnson to avoid a no-deal Brexit?
JR: This is a very difficult challenge. The difficulty thereof has been demonstrated by the votes that have not received support. It is also demonstrated by former Prime Minister [Theresa] May's attempts to reach an agreement regarding leaving with a deal, which ultimately resulted in her resigning. The current situation is extremely difficult, which illustrates just how closely the 28 member states of the EU are intertwined. Leaving the union means solving quite a lot of problems...
JT: Didn't Boris Johnson request that Estonia on its part be accommodating to ensure that negotiations end somehow other than a no-deal Brexit?
JR: I sensed that he isn't ruling out working in the name of Brexit being with a deal at all. Does this involve specific requests of Estonia, or some kind of tying in of topics... No, there was none of that today.
Editor: Aili Vahtla