Honourable President of the Riigikogu,
Dear Members of the Riigikogu,
I will start today’s address on Estonia’s foreign policy directions and objectives with the fundamental values of our policy. I would like to share with you a recollection from more than fifteen years ago, from September 2001. I was a young member of the parliament of Estonia staying in America Our programme, which started with an introductory briefing at the State Department on the morning of 11 September, was abruptly interrupted mere minutes later, when aircraft piloted by terrorists crashed into the New York World Trade Center towers and into the Pentagon.
During the late hours of that dramatic and dismal day, I was in my hotel room watching President George W. Bush address the stunned nation on television. In his short speech, he stated as follows: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks. [...] […] Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. [...] America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America.”
Naturally, I am not here today to speak about the United States, but about Estonia and our own foreign policy objectives. But I believe that we should bear in mind these words and above all their true meaning, and try to be guided by them in a time when all our values and the way of life that we aimed to achieve when restoring our freedom have come under the heaviest strain. We should consider the values that we wish to remain true to and are not willing to give up even in an aggressively transforming world.
In the years following the restoration of our independence, we by and large have lived in the belief that democracy and human values won once and for all. It soon became clear that totalitarianism, thirst for conquest, extremist ideologies and radical fundamentalism will not fall back without resistance. This applies to the Middle East and Northern Africa where the world is forced to fight extremist religious terrorist organisations while trying to seek solutions to civil wars and profound humanitarian crises, as well as to our eastern neighbourhood where an authoritarian ex-superpower is trying to restore its lost hegemony via force of arms.
Foreign policy, being value based, has often been up for debate and discussion in this session hall. At present, when we observe the news arriving from various capitals of the world – news of plans to reinstate the death penalty, to legalise domestic violence, to employ torture as an interrogation technique – we can see that the question about policies being value based is not merely an intellectual dilemma. Moreover, we can observe that our neighbours, partners and allies are also wrestling with this predicament, not just Estonia. And the correct answers are no longer remotely as obvious as we thought them to be.
Nevertheless, I want to affirm that the best way to protect the national interests provided in the preamble to our Constitution is to remain true to our values in both our internal and foreign policies. Alliance between countries and nations that honour democracy, the rule of law and human values and a world order based on international law and rules offer the best protection for our independence and freedom. Let this common ground of values and interests guide us on these crossroads of difficult choices.
The time that has passed since our foreign policy discussion last year has been dramatic and eventful – both internationally and domestically. The Foreign Minister’s portfolio has changed hands twice in this timespan, so please allow me to provide a geographic outlook on the current and near-future tasks and the most important objectives of Estonia’s foreign policy rather than deliver a regular retrospective report.
First, I will begin with transatlantic relationships.
The alliance between Europe and Northern America has been the backbone of the international security architecture for decades and will remain so in the future. This relationship is based on common values and also on a cultural sense of solidarity and an essential convergence of strategic interests. Europe, including Estonia, has always been and will continue to be interested in the United States being balanced and strong in terms of economy, politics and military. The continued dedication of the United States of America to its commitments as an ally, including its participation in ensuring Europe’s security with respect to military threats, is crucial for us.
While we long to see the continued dedication of the United States to its commitments as an ally of Europe, it is also our duty to understand the concerns and expectations of the United States. The wish that European countries bear their fair share of the burden of ensuring joint security is understandable and natural. As one of the few NATO allies who meets its obligations with respect to military spending, Estonia naturally supports the principle that all allies should endeavour to do the same.
We have stood alongside the United States as an ally in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other crisis hotspots. This will continue to be the case. Estonia will always remain an ally of the US and we will work to ensure that the United States remains a steadfast ally for Estonia whose support we can rely on. Presently, as the new administration has taken office, our primary goal is to create genuine and functional channels of communication with the US governmental authorities and to maintain and intensify our existing contacts with the two chambers of Congress, numerous think tanks in the United States, and the people of Estonian heritage living in the United States. The implementation of these goals is one of the directions that will be taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the next few years and is also a part of reinforcing our foreign policy.
The new administration’s opinion on how to continue negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union is still being shaped. As a fundamental supporter of free trade, Estonia naturally hopes that this process will continue. Yet regardless of the short-term developments with respect to free trade, Estonian-American trade relations have plenty of room for improvement and using the opportunities of the American market is in Estonia’s interests.
I would like to continue by describing the tasks that the European Union must face.
The European Union has for decades moved towards geographic expansion and ever deeper integration. With the Brexit referendum, this trend was broken. Neither British policymakers nor leaders in continental Europe were able to generally foresee that the British decision on continued membership in the European Union would be negative. I would prefer not to pretend that the result of the referendum was as I expected or would have liked it to be. But Estonia will fully respect this democratic decision made by its close ally.
During the negotiations that are due to start soon, Estonia will wish to maintain the unity of the 27 Member States. We presently have no reason to speculate what the final results of the negotiations will be, but we are interested in a result that will not harm the unity of the European Union, and preserves the opportunity for tight cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom following its departure from the Union.
A significant proportion of the negotiations will be held during Estonia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This places a particular responsibility on us for the successful conduct of the process as even though the Commission bears the brunt of the negotiations. The task of the Presidency is to ensure the seamless conduct of the negotiation process and uninterrupted exchange of information between the Member States and European Union institutions.
Regardless of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the country is and will remain one of Estonia’s most important bilateral cooperation partners. Likewise, Nordic-Baltic regional cooperation with the British will remain essential for us. I would like to separately emphasise the demonstrated willingness of the United Kingdom to continue playing an active role in European security. It is important to us as the UK will contribute to reinforced NATO deterrence status by deploying its forces with the NATO contingent in Estonia.
The migrant crisis does not seem to be as severe as it was a year ago. The numerical indicators of illegal immigration to the European Union are nearly three times lower compared to those of last year. But as the underlying causes for migration in the Middle East and in Africa are still present, continued pressure causes forced migration and economic immigration to Europe. The internal and external dimensions of the European migration policy are interconnected. In terms of the external dimension of migration, the European Union is engaged in three main fields, with Estonia contributing to each of them – firstly, the implementation of the migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey; secondly, the protection of external borders; and thirdly, finding and implementing a sustainable solution for the underlying causes of migration. Cooperation with African countries is critical in the latter case. However, managing the internal dimensions of migration presumes that the European Union Member States are able to find and maintain a consensus and each Member State performs the obligations they have undertaken.
One of the most serious security threats in Europe is related to terrorism. Even though the terrorist threat in Estonia has not increased in recent times according to risk assessments, we are still immediately affected by issues related to terrorism. We must bear in mind that two Estonian citizens lost their lives in last year’s bloody terrorist attack in Nice.
There is no fast-acting magic remedy against radicalisation and terrorism. Closing Europe’s internal borders is most certainly not a magic remedy either. As Europeans, we have begun to take European freedoms, including the free movement of people, for granted and we cannot even comprehend on a daily basis what a blow would be dealt to our way of life and our economic prosperity if these freedoms were lost or forfeited. Preservation and sustainability of the Schengen Area is vital for Estonia.
Preventing terrorist attacks is only possible via joint efforts by partners and allies. To this end, we are obliged to improve cooperation in order to prevent terrorism and any planned attacks, raise threat awareness and improve the crisis preparedness of our societies. All this must be addressed domestically too.
Soon, sixty years will pass since the signing of the Treaty of Rome. As we approach this anniversary, many Europeans are of the opinion that the entire idea of Europe has reached the threshold of a severe crisis. In addition to Brexit negotiations, the migrant crisis and the need to rethink or re-assess the nature of transatlantic relations, we are seeing a rise in critical sentiment concerning Europe in several European countries and a growth in the popularity of political players fomenting such attitudes. In order to maintain European unity that is crucial for our security in this complex situation, we should not be currently planning ambitious and comprehensive reforms of the fundamental principles of the European Union, but rather focusing on reinforcing what has been achieved through the decades. Furthermore, as Member States of the European Union, we must make considerably better efforts to rethink communication with our own citizens as many of them, either correctly or mistakenly, perceive the current Union as a project for the elite.
The key topics of future debates in the European Union – improving security and economic growth – are also central issues for Estonia’s development. Estonia’s economic success depends on the developments and trends in Europe just as our security does. The fact that supporting Estonian enterprises in foreign markets is one of the key tasks for all our foreign missions is inherent for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs insofar that we even forget to separately mention it at times.
Indeed, being a small, open and export-oriented economy, Estonia only stands to gain from the opportunity to freely trade on the export markets. Therefore we have always supported the fundamental freedoms of the European Union – the principles of free movement of goods, services, capital and people In addition to these four freedoms, our innovative e-state also considers the implementation of a fifth freedom – the free movement of data – to be important. Protectionism is not a solution for the world or for economic growth.
Honourable Elected Representatives,
In the European Union Global Strategy which was completed last year, various areas are set out where ensuring security requires more efficient cooperation by the members of the Union. Among these areas, I will point out enhancing the resilience of our societies for preventing and confronting hybrid threats, the necessity to improve the continuous operation of critical infrastructure, as well as joint military procurements, defence-related scientific and technological cooperation, and better combination of the capacities of the European Union and NATO. The Global Strategy draws attention to the need to better interconnect the internal and foreign activities in the European Union, and to increase geographic flexibility between eastward and southward activities. These principles match the Estonian understanding of rational use of resources and the indivisibility of security.
In the second half of the year, Estonia will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time. In this role, our visibility and influence will be greater than ever since accession to the Union in 2004.
In January, the Government of the Republic approved the priorities of our Presidency. The final programme of our Presidency will be shaped at the end of June when Malta passes the baton to Estonia, but we can already say that developing an innovative, secure, digital and inclusive Europe will lie at the heart of the programme.
From the point of view of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Digital Agenda and matters related to the Eastern Partnership are of particular importance.
We are one of the most determined advocates of the Eastern Partnership policy in Europe. The regard of Europe for the respective region and its support of the sovereign decisions and territorial integrity of the Eastern partners is in the interests of the security and stability of Europe. It is important for the citizens of the Eastern partners and of the European Union to understand that the partnership is providing palpable benefits for both. The opportunity for visa-free travel is of great significance, and in the case of Georgia and Ukraine, we have reached the final stages of a long process.
The central themes in promoting the cooperation between the European Union and the Eastern partners are economy, public administration and education, as well as establishing and maintaining personal contacts. It is important that in their orientation towards Europe, the Eastern partners be constantly inspired to reform their countries and societies. On the other hand, we have to achieve a status where the Eastern Partnership is not perceived as a mere niche interest of certain Central and Eastern European countries; it has to be a common affair of all the Member States of the European Union. In this context, it is essential to take best advantage of the Eastern Partnership Summit that will take place in Brussels in November during Estonia’s Presidency. The Summit will draw conclusions on the achievements made in the last two years and determine certain goals for the future.
When we turn our attention to the security developments transpiring to the east of the European Union, we cannot overlook Russia, whose political leadership has still not abandoned its attempts to change the European security arrangements by means of warfare and ignoring international law. Soon, three years will have passed since the illegal annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, this period of time has been sufficiently long for the aggression against Ukraine to have been relegated to the background from the centre of the world’s public attention and from the front pages of the press. It is our duty to keep this issue topical in bilateral foreign communication as well as in international organisations. We cannot let the world and the aggressor forget that the injustice rendered has not been set right, the territorial integrity of Ukraine has not been restored, Crimea is still occupied and illegally annexed, and military action in eastern Ukraine is ongoing and has escalated in the past few weeks. Brutal attacks against civilians are committed in the course of the latter.
I stress that as long as Russia continues to violate universally recognised international law and fails to perform the obligations it has undertaken, there can be no discussions of the restoration of trust and confidence or a return to normal interactions. I fully agree with the opinions provided by Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate Republican Majority Leader, in an interview with Politico a few weeks ago, where Senator McConnell recalled that there is an obvious reason for the sanctions imposed on Russia – the behaviour of the latter in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as well as attempts to interfere in the United States elections. “If there is any country in the world that does not deserve sanctions relief, it is Russia,” said McConnell.
Estonia’s position is also clear and unequivocal – the sanctions must remain in effect until absolute and complete compliance with the Minsk agreements is achieved. The validity of sanctions must not be artificially bound to any other issues; the inescapable prerequisite for any dropping of sanctions must be Russia’s commitment to the principles of international law and performance of the obligations it has undertaken. And vice versa – should Russia further disconnect itself from the performance of the obligations, we must be prepared to toughen the sanctions.
However, in addition to political and moral support, Ukraine also needs practical help and support. The fundamental reform of a country calls for an effort at all times. Ukraine implements complex reforms while fighting for its independence and integrity. I can assure that Estonia will continue to support Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries via development cooperation in order to help these countries and societies implement the required reforms and improve their resilience.
Military and political conflicts and humanitarian crises in the southern neighbourhood of the European Union might at first glance appear distant, but in fact they also directly impact us. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and the countries of the Sahel are just a few examples of crisis hotspots in Europe’s southern neighbourhood. It is from these conflict zones that the majority of refugee and migration flows moving towards Europe begin.
We understand the indivisibility of international security and the need for solidarity with its partners and allies while also comprehending their security concerns. In addition to participating in international military and peacekeeping missions, we are engaged with our partners with the aim of resolving the migrant crisis and the root causes of international terrorism. The best way to achieve this is to assist the countries in distress upon reinforcing the structures required for the functioning of the country and the improvement of their sustainability. That is how we help create prerequisites that ensure that people are not forced to leave their homes in search of a safe and dignified life.
We have shared and are willing to share in the future our experience and knowledge in using information and communication technology, e-governance and cybersecurity, as well as in strengthening the rights of women and children. We also support the development of the European Union’s trade policy, such as helping the Union’s southern neighbours exploit their economic potential to ensure the welfare and self-reliance of people. During Estonia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a subsequent EU-Africa summit will take place in Abidjan in November. The summit will focus on one of the key issues of African economic growth – creating future opportunities for the youth.
Of course, when talking of conflict zones in the immediate neighbourhood of the European Union, we must give separate consideration to the Syrian Civil War which has brought about one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes in recent history. A sustainable solution for the Syria crisis requires a political process and an agreement based on a broad international consensus. Estonia will support any initiatives that will bring peace and stability to this county which is torn by war and violence. We also help Syrian war refugees by participating in their relocation and contributing financially to humanitarian aid funds and projects.
However, a political solution cannot mean that those who have perpetrated monstrous atrocities against the Syrian people should be left unpunished.
Dear Elected Representatives,
The previous year was dramatic and eventful in foreign politics. But there is no reason to expect this year to be any easier.
“What´s past is prologue," said Antonio in William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest". Our current foreign and security policy horizon is far from serene, but I remain certain that our ship of state is also designed to sail in stormy waters and the work achieved thus far and the experience gained and the alliances created in the course thereof have sufficiently prepared us for coping with any future tempests.
Thank you for your attention and I am happy to answer your question.