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Address by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Sven Mikser, at the discussion of foreign policy in the Riigikogu

13. February 2018 - 11:18

Distinguished President of the Riigikogu,

Dear members of the Riigikogu,
Honoured guests,

We live in a time of ever faster changes, and these changes also affect international relations and the global balance of power.
The rules-based multilateral system of international relations is face to face with serious challenges. In a number of places, sustainability of democratic rule of law and global economic model has been placed in question. At the same time, the West continues to gradually lose influence and relative economic power in the world. Geopolitics is also continuing to become more prominent, and tensions are growing in the global security situation.
The spectrum of threats is broad and varied: terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, unpredictable behaviour of dictators, cyber threats. Yet the new threats have not replaced traditional ones, they have added to them, for conventional military threats have not gone away.
To an increasing extent, the developments in the information space are also affecting the security of societies and countries: blurring of the boundaries of truth, sowing of doubts and mistrust, psychological manipulation. There is less and less that is clear and lasting.

Dear audience members,

This year, the Republic of Estonia will celebrate its centenary. Looking back at the first 100 years of our independent statehood, we can be proud that we have had enough wisdom and patience to survive as a people, remain true to ourselves, and to preserve the Estonian state, nation, language and culture – despite all the challenges, wars, occupations and repressions. We are winners.
Yet today we have reached a new crossroads. We have a choice as whether to remain loyal to the fundamental values of liberal democracy, which have guided us to the present day, or to go astray down some side path leading into the unknown.

At this point, allow me to touch on the rules-based multilateral world order, which has served us well through the restoration of our independence and the following quarter century. In recent years, one of the deepest and most fundamental challenges for democracies and their governments has been the challenge posed to liberal democratic values – globally, in the European Union and right here in Estonia. We should recall that when we restored our independence, our aspiration was to be a full-fledged European people and return to the fold of European nations that are kept together by common values. We became a member of the European Union and NATO because we wanted to share the same values with Europe in defending human rights, the principles of the rule of law and free market economy. It would be a grave and fateful mistake to underestimate the values in the transatlantic space and the interests bound up in those values, or to give up those values under populist pressure, and it is an error we cannot permit ourselves to make.

Liberal democracy, an outgrowth of the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, on which today’s rules-based world order is also established, may not be flawless, but it is the best system humankind has managed to come up with and put into motion. Let us reflect on what universal human rights, including minorities’ rights and human dignity, accountability for one’s actions and individual liberties mean – these were achieved through sweat and tears and often even at the cost of human lives. We do not have the right or the authority to convert these values to small change.

The multilateral system of international relations, based on rules that take into account our convictions, has allowed us to secure our liberty, security and prosperity. This system will continue to serve us well if we only care enough for it together with our allies and partners. Today, both the philosophy and practice of our foreign policy rests on a stable foundation, but we will have to be bolder and more creative in future. We have to be open to the world around us, engage in cooperation and support other countries and peoples who so badly need it.

In addition to bilateral cooperation with our most important partners, Estonia has been an active and constructive contributor to numerous international organizations, including, of course, in the UN, which is the main framework organization of the rules-based world order. It is precisely in the UN Security Council where all questions pertaining directly or indirectly to the world’s – and thus Estonia’s – well-being and security are raised. Global issues, be they the climate or development, eradication of poverty, or better access to education, can be best resolved precisely through the UN. The events in Ukraine – the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine – proved convincingly that the security of Europe and our neighbourhood requires attention at the global level, too. I am convinced that Estonia’s security interests will be best protected if the Security Council includes a country that is located in our region and shares similar values and perception of security. Largely because of this, Estonia is seeking a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the 2020-21 period. We can already say that our efforts during the campaign so far have made Estonia better as well as better-known, introducing our interests and priorities in the farthest-flung regions of the world.

Dear parliamentary deputies,

Now I would like to address three important groups of topics, which I intended to focus on today. They are: security, our common future in Europe, and protection of our citizen and promotion of our business interests.
I’ll start with security. I am convinced that the best antidote to any security threat is unity of allies and partners who share the same values with us. NATO is and will remain the cornerstone of military defence of the Estonian state and our NATO membership and Article Five of the Washington Treaty are the most influential deterrents we have. The implementation of the decisions of the Warsaw Summit, including the arrival of NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, has been significant in shoring up our security. This year, we are preparing for the NATO summit in Brussels, where we will focus on how to make the alliance’s deterrent stance even stronger.
Just as important as NATO’s military readiness is solidarity in the European Union, along with EU and NATO cooperation. The European Union’s global strategy emphasizes the need for a stronger Europe. This is one of the guiding principles of strengthening defence cooperation in the European Union; an active, strong foreign policy and security policy offer enhanced opportunities for pre-empting security threats. The PESCO standing cooperation format for European defence – successfully introduced during the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU – provides the opportunity to strengthen actual defence capability of member states, reduce costs, improve situation awareness and, if necessary expedite troop deployments. The greater contribution from European allies will of course also improve Atlantic security.

Naturally, allies on opposite sides of the Atlantic are not always unanimous on all matters or at all times. Certain differences of opinion exist today, much as they did earlier, and this need not be cause for sinking into major depression. I can affirm to you that Europe’s relations with the US continue to be strong. This is confirmed by the US decisions pertaining to European security and the resources they have allocated for implementing the decisions. Estonia’s bilateral relations with the US are also strong and secure. Never before have so many high-level visitors from across the Atlantic set foot on Estonian soil as in the past year. In the recent years, American awareness of the strategic situation in our region has improved markedly, and cooperation has grown closer.

Strong transatlantic ties are in the interests of both Europeans and Americans. The more closely Europe and America manage to coordinate their policies on complicated and sensitive issues such as the security situation on the Korean peninsula, the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the Middle East peace process or sanctions against violators of international law, the greater the likelihood of achieving success. Our strength lies in the unity of allies.
For years now, extremist groups have posed challenges to our security and democratic rule of law, by using terrorist attacks to advance their aims. The threats facing Europe from the south have not disappeared and they must be dealt with in cooperation between the UN, European Union and NATO on all shores of the Mediterranean. The spread of extremist ideologies and terrorism are long-term, multifaceted security threats. The battle against them encompasses military aspects as well, but sustainable solutions must go far beyond curtailing the arming, financing of terrorism or curtailing Internet propaganda. It is possible to win back territory from the Islamic State – and substantial progress has been made by the international coalition in the last year – but the fight on the ideological and psychological battlefield is far from over. In the long-range view, success will come above all from the economic development, and better employment and educational opportunities in regions that currently are breeding grounds for terrorism.

Dear audience members,

Let us now turn our view to the future of Europe.

A couple of months from now, Estonia will make 14 years as a member of the European Union. What have these years been like for Estonia and Europe?
As one part of Europe’s single economic space, Estonia’s economy has increased severalfold in size. Studying, working and travelling in EU member states have become a part of the daily lives of our people. Unfortunately we tend to quickly forget these benefits, being quick to complain about bureaucracy and the political choices we might see as being forced on us by the outside world. But increasingly here at home – often artificially occasioned by everyday political interests – we have started to see ourselves in opposition to the European Union, including with the argument that taking part in the European Union’s common decisions and policies somehow undermines our sovereignty. This rhetoric sows irrational fears in society, yet sadly offers no constructive solutions. I therefore consider such actions deeply irresponsible.

No decision in Europe is reached without us participating in it. The future of the European Union is in our own hands to an extent greater than we realize. Richer by the experience of our successful Presidency, we can become one of the leaders of future development in the EU, deepen cooperation with the Nordics, Latvia, Lithuania, Benelux countries, France, Germany and many other member states that act responsibly. In the policy areas that are what we call multi-speed, we prefer to make progress together with as many of us as possible, keeping the door open to those who want to join us later.
To make our Union better and bring it closer to the people, and to allow the leaders of member states to hold deeper political debates, President of the European Council Donald Tusk has initiated the Leaders’ Agenda meetings of national leaders on the highest-priority topics. Nine such informal discussions are planned in 2018. But the future of Europe can of course not be shaped by leaders and senior officials alone, and I hope that we will have serious discussions with participation of sociologists, economists, thinkers – i.e., all of us. I hope you will join us in thinking and taking part in the discussions on the future of Europe, to shape the European Union into exactly the organization that the people of Estonia need.

Maintaining people’s faith and trust in Europe is of critical importance. Liberties are encoded into the EU’s DNA, but their advancement has to be continued through policies that foster a sense of security for citizens: defending the borders, dealing with immigration, promoting the economy, fighting corruption. It is important to create synergy between different European Union policies, such as in the field of economic and social policy. To ensure both the safety and sense of security for people, activities in the field of internal and external security must be coordinated. The economic well-being and standard of living in European countries are largely related to connections between all regions of the EU, and thus successful energy and transport projects are important.

The European Union’s capability to take action in crises is vital as well. The European Union’s common position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine underscores this, as it firmly upholds the fundamental principles of the European security architecture and deplores flagrant violations of international law. At a time that Ukraine is approaching 2019 elections, we and other friends of and donors to Ukraine have to provide multifaceted support for key reforms and continue to set rigorous demands in regard to the fight against corruption. It is in precisely this way that we best support Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to self-determination. Naturally, our interest and objective is to contribute to reforms in all six Eastern Partnership countries, giving particular consideration to three associated partners – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The European aspirations of these countries have our complete support. We reaffirmed as much at the Eastern Partnership Summit held late last November.

An important discussion for Estonia in 2018 concerns the European Union’s new multiannual financing framework, which must take into account the prospective exit of a major member state from the EU. As a result, our common budget may decrease. Estonia’s position is that if we wish to see a more effective, more capable Europe, we have to be prepared to contribute a bit more, since we are now a somewhat more affluent member state ourselves. Estonia has to this point been one of the EU’s biggest net recipients. On average, we have received 3.5 euros for each euro we have contributed. We will certainly remain a net recipient in the next budgetary period. EU funds have provided significant support for our structural reforms, created economic growth and jobs, and helped develop infrastructure and promote research activity. A number of projects that are priorities for Estonia are slated for potential funding in the next financial framework as well, including Rail Baltic, the synchronization of power grids with Europe, and research and development.

Dear audience,

I would also like to touch on the issue of protection of our citizens and Estonian economic interests around the world.
The crises and terrorist attacks of recent years, including in Europe, have instilled in people a more acute realization of the potential dangers abroad. The Foreign Ministry has done all it can so that our people are better protected and our citizens have up to date, relevant information about travel destinations. Our people can count on assistance anywhere in the world from Estonian embassies and honorary consuls, as well as from our partners and the EU’s representatives. The Foreign Ministry offers an around-the-clock emergency assistance hotline, and keeps information on travellers’ safety up to date on its website. We have been able to resolve the most complicated consular incidents in Iraq, India and Afghanistan and to this point, we have succeeded in bringing all of our people home safely. This has come about thanks to the total dedication, experience and forbearance of the Estonian diplomats and officials, and assistance from our allies and partners.

Our business and economic diplomats are just as dedicated. The ratio of Estonia’s exports to GDP is 80 per cent, which is one of the highest indicators in the European Union and the entire world. Inexpensive labour and cheap manufacturing – our old competitive advantages – are fading. At the same time, the Estonian success stories and our global possibilities, above all as a developer and supplier of e-governance and IT services, are far greater than we ourselves have yet realized. Access to the single market on the background of a free trade system based on WTO rules helps us to energetically develop in new conditions where most of the world’s economic growth is taking place outside the European Union. Insofar as we need an open global economic environment for our further growth as an open economy, we continue efforts to enter into free trade agreements with all of our key partners. As to recent positive examples in this area, I would like to highlight the recent provisional entry into force of the FTA with Canada and the negotiations for an FTA with Japan, which reached the home stretch during the Estonian Presidency.
The key to furthering our business interests may no longer necessarily lie in the fact that we do more and a greater volume of everything. Instead, what will bring success is consistently developing our niche capabilities. Proceeding from entrepreneurs’ business interests, we also must be able to better combine different state resources and abilities with those of private enterprise.

Economic well-being and security are two sides of the same coin: an active and targeted business diplomacy will support our foreign policy and security policy, and the stability that comes with the secure environment will lay the preconditions for successful economic development. Close ties and cooperation, united efforts to promote our economic interests with the private sector and other agencies are just as important as cooperation with allies when it comes to strengthening our security. Only in this way can the question “Is Narva next?” be countered with the resounding answer that indeed Narva is the best destination for making the next investment decision.
In the long term, development cooperation also stands for precisely our own people and interests. Estonia has pledged to contribute 0.33 per cent of its GDP to development aid by 2030. We are currently just under 0.2 per cent. I am certain that with the development cooperation funds entrusted to the Foreign Ministry, we are doing commendable marketing work for Estonia worldwide and at the same time we are making the world around us a better, safer place, helping other countries with solutions that have been successfully tried at home.

Distinguished members of the Riigikogu,

Allow me to close with words from Jaan Tõnisson, who 100 years ago, before the declaration of Estonian independence, wrote the following: “… It is necessary to appoint individuals whose function it will be to take steps outside our homeland for the protection of our national interests.” On 14 November 2018, we will commemorate a date on which the Foreign Ministry will have de jure and de facto been in continuous operation for no more or less than a century. The main function of the foreign service has always been to safeguard and secure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Estonia. Just like 100 years ago, Estonian diplomats are working today as well on the front lines of safeguarding and securing our independence. They do their work so that we would never be alone again and we are accepted throughout the free world as a country and society for which even the ultimate sacrifice would be worth making, if that were necessary.

If one end of the measure of our success extends to the outside world, the other end is firmly anchored in our homeland soil. Foreign policy does not serve itself; it works for the interests of our people. It has ensured our success at decisive junctures of history and it is the only conceivable way forward. As with national defence, more must also be invested into the foreign service in complicated times. In the end, diplomacy is the most effective and actually, the most cost-effective means of ensuring our security. The security, economic well-being and sense of security of the people of Estonia will continue to be the main function and source of inspiration for foreign policy activity.

Thank you for your attention, and I will now be glad to take your questions.

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