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The presentation of the Government at the foreign policy debate in Riigikogu

12. February 2019 - 11:15

The presentation of the Government at the foreign policy debate in Riigikogu
Foreign Minister Sven Mikser

Honourable Chair, honourable Riigikogu, dear guests,

Let me begin by looking back in history. In addition to celebrating the centenary of the birth of the Republic of Estonia, last year we also marked the 100th anniversary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Throughout the history of our state, it is the foreign service that has perpetuated our legal continuity.

The Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia carried the idea of national self-determination. A few weeks before the declaration of Estonian independence, the US president Woodrow Wilson gave a speech to the Congress, presenting his plan for peace in Europe. In international relations Wilson gave centre stage to liberal values, such as free trade, democracy, the right of peoples to choose their future, and the cooperation of sovereign states. At the time, the world was not quite ready for all these ideas.

Estonian independence was not a burst of idealism in the spirit of Wilson. It was the realisation of a long-held dream, made possible by the changing world order, and fulfilled as a result of the purposeful efforts of the people. Our independence was reinforced with fighting and sacrifices in the War of Independence, and the Treaty of Tartu that concluded it was our first tangible diplomatic achievement.

Estonia and other small states that had achieved sovereignty hoped that major powers too would develop a rules-based system of international relations instead of pursuing the politics of spheres of influence. During the first decade of our independence, our diplomatic efforts attempted to integrate Estonia with Europe. However, major powers did not consider small states their equals in international relations. Thus, on the eve of the Second World War, we lost our independence and in the subsequent occupations also a large section of our population.

After the Second World War, the United States and its allies aimed to protect Western freedoms and values against the Soviet Union and international communism. Democratic values, the rule of law, individual freedoms and free trade were given prominence. To protect these values, NATO was founded 70 years ago. French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman added the notion of solidarity to the arsenal of European values, and it forms the basis for the European Union as we know it.

The ideals of freedom lived on within us throughout the occupations and, together with the Western policy of the non-recognition of the Soviet occupation, it ensured the survival and continuation of Estonian independence. Just as we had done after the First World War, we made the best use of the window of opportunity that opened up for us in the upheavals following the Cold War and built a democratic society that is impressively strong.

Speaking before you last year, I noted that “in recent years, questioning the values of liberal democracy globally, in the European Union, and also here in Estonia has become one of the greatest and fundamental challenges for democratic states and their governments”. The principles that have served Estonia so well since the regaining of independence continue to be under pressure.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

I would like to outline the main challenges of our foreign policy and present solutions that would help us protect and promote a rules-based order, and serve our foreign policy and security interests.

This June we will find out if Estonia has been elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations. The actions of the UN have been widely criticised, deservedly so at times, however, this in no way casts doubt on the need for such a unique inclusive global organisation where all states can resolve tensions and conflicts according to agreed rules, and strive for long-term development goals. The UN is particularly important for small states, because their strength can never compete with that of major powers, but as members of the international community they still have all the same rights.

When Estonia sees a threat in the erosion of the rules-based order, isolationism, and the enforcement of policies from a position of power, we must join forces with other like-minded countries to try to thwart or at least neutralise these trends. This is possible only through active contribution and participation.

There are several issues that Estonia as a member of the Security Council should particularly focus on: applying international law in cyber space, the prevention of conflicts by improving resilience, issues related to the climate and the environment, the rights and security of women and children, and last but not least, updating the working methods of the UN Security Council itself.

Dear audience,

I will now talk about our transatlantic relations. The transatlantic security alliance continues to be strong, however, in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of some discords in several policy areas that may have a negative effect on the current accord in foreign and security policy. It is perfectly clear that the leading role of the United States of America in ensuring NATO’s deterrence and protection as well as their active contribution to European security continue to be necessary. At the same time, the call of the United States for more equal burden-sharing should be taken seriously by European allies. Investing in one’s security is the obligation of each state, and fulfilling these goals is the basis for a strong relationship of trust. By the end of this year, the so-called 2% club should have nine members, and many countries are making detailed plans for reaching that target. Estonia’s defence spending has exceeded 2% of the GDP for years, so now our debates focus on the necessity and nature of additional contributions for eliminating main shortcomings in capabilities and developing our independent defence capacities even more efficiently.

The implementation of the decisions of the 2017 NATO summit in Warsaw and the number of countries participating in the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) of NATO in our region is a practical demonstration of the strength of our relations. At the summit in Brussels last summer we focused on the continued improvement of the alliance’s deterrence power through more efficient military planning and deployment capabilities.

In recent years, we have witnessed important developments in European defence cooperation, and in the cooperation between the EU and NATO. Strategic communication, dealing with cyber and hybrid threats and increasing military mobility are some good examples of mutually beneficial cooperation.

It is important to make sure that the development of European defence cooperation complements the European security architecture based on transatlantic ties instead of attempting to replace it. Also, the debate around the strategic autonomy of Europe should not become an unnecessary irritant in transatlantic relations.

Our bilateral relations with the United States are very good. In increasing our defence and security cooperation were are focusing on military exercises, cyber issues, energy security and strategic communication. We are working with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland towards an increased US presence in Estonia as well as the Baltic region.

The global map of threats is becoming increasingly complex. Asymmetric threats know no national borders and their sources are difficult to determine. Extremists, terrorist organisations and autocratic regimes are increasingly forceful and brazen in their actions. European security is also affected by illegal migration caused by conflicts and instability in the neighbourhood of the European Union as well as economic and climate problems.

International terrorism usually hails from hotbeds of conflict where crisis prevention has not been successful. In these cases, in addition to dealing with the root causes of conflicts it is also necessary to contribute to military operations to physically weaken terrorist groups. The mandate from the Riigikogu to continue training Iraqi troops is valid until the end of 2019. Since last year, Estonia is also participating in the French-led Operation Barkhane in Mali which mainly aims to fight terrorism in the Sahel region.

As the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is achieving a military victory over the group on the ground, we must focus more on creating stability to prevent the re-emergence of violence and the spread of extremist ideas. For this purpose, Estonia has earmarked €1.3 million for 2018-2019 in humanitarian aid for the alleviation of the Syrian crisis.

Dear audience,

Whereas 15 years of NATO membership have increased our security, the 15 years of European Union membership have significantly increased our prosperity, welfare, and safety. As an organisation it is unique, because its rules and working mechanisms have become deeply ingrained in the daily lives of its member states, but it is also a collection of ideas and values.

Today, the unity and values of the EU are under threat – populism based on lies and scaremongering that appeals to the base instincts of people are some of the tools in the hands of those who oppose the idea of Europe. Attempts have been made to import these kinds of political methods to Estonia, where public support for the European Union has traditionally been high. The so-called illiberal democracy is hailed as an example, which essentially means an absence of democracy; European unity is contrasted with national sovereignty, forgetting that it is cooperation that increases the influence of small states. When we put our sovereignty in the service of common interests, it is precisely to ensure the endurance of our independence and sovereignty. Common decision-making and policies in the European Union amplify Estonian policies and economic development.

The resolution of Brexit is not clear yet but the United Kingdom will remain an important partner for Estonia even outside the European Union. We would like to put the current ‘divorce proceedings’ behind us with minimal losses and focus on building a new efficient relationship that covers economy and trade, internal and external security, youth and student exchange, digital and cyber issues, and science. We are also making coordinated efforts to prevent our citizens and businesses from suffering because of Brexit.

Naturally, Brexit is also a lesson in how closely the ties of the European Union unite us, how complicated it is to untangle them both in terms of technicalities as well as substance, and how great the price for the absence of the EU would be.

In 2019 discussions will begin on the European Union’s priority areas and goals for the next five years. We are among opinion leaders in many areas – digital solutions, data economy, and cyber security. The next seven-year financial framework of the European Union should support these priorities, while maintaining traditional policies, such as the continued increase of cohesion, and the common agricultural policy. In terms of major projects, Estonia’s priorities are the Rail Baltic project and the synchronisation of our power grids with the European frequency band.

On the 10th anniversary of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme, we would like to express support for the reforms of Eastern Partnership countries and provide a perspective for further development of relations. Development cooperation constitutes an important tool for expanding our common space of values, which increases the welfare and security of both us as well as our neighbours. This way, supporting democracy and the rule of law, establishing good governance and advancing civil society and human rights in Ukraine is reinforcing stability and development in all of Europe.

In the near future, Estonia must also be able to engage more with issues related to the Southern Neighbourhood of the European Union. In development cooperation too we must look further ahead and focus on least developed countries. On the global scale, we have been a wealthy and very successful small state for years now, so it is the task of the next Riigikogu and government to find a way to attain the promised 0.33% of the GDP for development cooperation and humanitarian aid. I would like to remind you that it currently stands at a mere 0.18%.

Honourable Members of the Riigikogu,

Estonia’s economic success largely depends on external markets. We have consistently increased our prosperity through an open market economy, common European Union trade policy and contractually regulated foreign trade. The free trade agreement between the EU and Japan, in force since 1 February, is a good example of how Europe together can achieve so much more than its member states on their own. Unfortunately, external trade relations have also seen the multilateral values-based order being replaced at times by limited deals-based trade and protectionism. European businesses are facing limits on market entry, inevitable transfers of technology and lack of internet freedom, which, in turn, provides a justification for setting up protectionist barriers in the United States and Europe. The European Union must be consistent in protecting the free market, which is one of its founding principles. Estonia will continue to actively encourage rules-based free trade and search for solutions that would maintain transatlantic trade relations and alleviate the tensions that have emerged in EU-US relations.

Helping Estonian entrepreneurs find export markets is a priority for our foreign service. We have met with success, and the volume of our export is larger than ever before, however, we must maintain our focus when moving forward and make better use of our advantages. Attracting investments is another important goal, focusing on capital intensive ‘smart areas’ to increase the added value of Estonian products.

External economic interests are an important consideration for us when expanding the network of our foreign representations. Some good examples include the upcoming opening of the Estonian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, which is a gateway to the Arab peninsula, and our new Consulate General in San Francisco on the West Coast of the United States. To improve exports, we must also make more efficient use of our extensive network of honorary consuls and strengthen the business diplomacy aspect in embassies and in Tallinn.

Honourable Riigikogu,

The digital dimension of Estonian foreign policy is growing. Having succeeded in building one of the most developed e-states in the world, Estonia’s international reputation is excellent. It allows us to introduce Estonia as well as our products and services in new ways. We are also helping other states, regions and international organisations with the uptake of information society solutions. Developing an information society requires but also supports openness, freedom of speech, the protection of human rights and the rules-based order, thus serving the broader foreign policy aims of Estonia.

Having built a robust national cyber defence and cyber security system, Estonia ranks high in global cyber security indexes. Last year, government delegations from 94 states came here to gain insight into Estonia’s solutions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is increasing development cooperation with states that wish to learn from our cyber experience. The market niches for digital and cyber security in developing countries are yet to be filled and this offers opportunities for our private sector. As a small and flexible country, we can teach others how to use limited resources to build a functioning national cyber defence system.

Another area where Estonia has a leading position in the world is shaping cyber norms and international law. Politically motivated cyber-attacks pose an increasing threat. The responsible conduct of states in cyber space is gaining importance. This is why we are active in shaping cyber security initiatives in the UN, OSCE, the Council of Europe and other international organisations.

To increase our national expertise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plans to create an international centre of excellence for cyber law in cooperation with universities and academic institutions. Estonia is already one of the leading providers of cyber expertise to international organisations, and our task is to maintain and enhance our status as a leading cyber state.

The rapid changes that come with the information revolution cause uncertainty about the future in many people. Whereas cyber-attacks and information operations in cyberspace pose a challenge, the automation of jobs and the victory of artificial intelligence offer new opportunities, which Estonia, a flexible small state, should seize. Today we need a new Tiger Leap initiative that would involve the political, economic, scientific and educational potential of the entire society, and achieving this requires us to significantly increase the funding for development activities in science and technology. If we wish to take innovation to another level we must find resources that would match the countries that are currently leading the way in innovation.

Honoured Riigikogu,

In conclusion, allow me to emphasise to you once more that Estonian national interests are based on values, and are best protected by advancing liberal values and rules-based cooperation. Historically, Estonia as an independent state has thrived when liberal values have dominated the international arena. Europe has thrived when the system of international relations has been based on rules and respect for the sovereignty of states. Conversely, the darkest chapters of our continent have been written at times when limited national self-interest has been placed above international cooperation, or when liberal ideals have been suppressed and destroyed.

If anyone feels that values based on democracy, market economy, civil and human rights, the rule of law and solidarity have become a burden on Europe, we must also ask what the alternative is. How to handle the onslaught of illiberalism and autocracy, how to counter the return of the policy of spheres of influence to the global arena? How to maintain solidarity with allies and partners when nationalist self-interest begins to eclipse common interests? If we cannot or do not want to show any solidarity towards others, why should they feel any solidarity with us?

For the best part of the past thirty years, Estonian diplomacy and foreign service have enacted the will of the Estonian people to be a part of the political, economic and security space that connects Western values. In advancing Estonian national interests we have always strived for a consensus-based foreign policy. Following the restoration of our independence, all our governments have strengthened Estonia’s sovereignty and international standing by enhancing alliances and partnerships. I am convinced that the next government will also put foreign policy at the service of our interests and ensure the resources that are needed for the successful functioning of the foreign service. This should be made easier by the foreign policy development agenda that sets out goals for the next decade and which will be discussed by the next government and Riigikogu.

Finally, allow me to go back nearly a hundred years and quote Estonia’s first Foreign Minister Jaan Poska, who spoke at the Constituent Assembly on 10 February 1920: “Because it may come to pass that in order to protect our neutrality we must take up arms, because after we have made peace and it has been ratified, we have the position of a neutral state and must protect its obligations against states that are still at war”. Let this quote be the answer to those who ask what Estonia’s Plan B is, should the foreign policy based on alliances, European solidarity and Western values fail us. The answer is simple; our current actions are the alternative to the plan that failed in 1939. A democratic small state will survive and prosper if it protects its values at home and abroad, and if it has allies who share these values and who are also prepared to advance and protect these values together.

Thank you for your attention.

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