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Report on foreign policy by Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets at the Parliament of Estonia

16. February 2021 - 11:09

Honourable Members of Parliament, dear guests,

In foreign policy, Estonia acts as a sovereign state to ensure that our interests are represented, our security is protected and our people’s lives improve. This year, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the restoration of our independence and the centenary of establishing diplomatic relations with many of our allies and partners who have stood by us in good times and supported us at difficult moments. Together we belong to a space of values based on democracy, rule of law, free market economy, human dignity, the diversity of the cultures, identities and traditions of all peoples, freedom of speech and respect for human rights.    

Over the past decade, we have witnessed an erosion of the influence and unity of this space of values. Protecting the rules-based international order and preserving the common space of Western values requires us to deal with the root causes of these problems in our societies, and enhance and intensify cooperation between democracies. In a changing world, it is vital for us to ensure that the people in Estonia understand each other, and also to make sure that as a state, we will never again find ourselves alone in the gales of geopolitics. To this end, we must make an effort in our foreign policy to ensure that the Western world remains united and proactive and that we are unreservedly at its political core.

Unfortunately, the international security situation has become increasingly tense. The rules-based international order that was already under pressure is facing serious challenges, compounded by the global health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authoritarian regimes are taking forceful steps against international law, democracy and its foundations, with disregard for both fundamental freedoms and human rights. In a world of heightened competition between major powers, Estonia must courageously stand up for itself.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Every day, Estonia’s diplomacy is working to ensure that Estonia’s security is protected and certain, and that the Estonian nation, language and culture are preserved through the ages.

Estonia’s national interests are protected by taking international agreements and democratic values as our guiding principle, and it forms the foundation for both our domestic development as well as our stable and peaceful relations with other states. Estonia’s security depends on our competent and skilled diplomats, our defence resolve and our reputation, and strong relations with our Allies. Naturally, it is crucial for us to act as a credible partner on the international stage, and make our contribution to the security of our Allies, and therefore, the world.

Reinforced transatlantic security is in Estonia’s interests. The security of Estonia is inextricably linked to the security of all of Europe. Its cornerstone is our membership in NATO, where we are contributing to all three of its core tasks: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security.

The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated that NATO is able to respond quickly to unique crises and the bond between Allies is strong even when individual relations are complicated. The Alliance is in good health. This year, NATO will look to the future; a summit is held to discuss the action plan for the next decade and the process of updating NATO’s Strategic Concept will probably begin. It is in Estonia’s interest that the defence and deterrence posture of NATO continues to strengthen, including in our region. The Alliance continues to face direct as well as unconventional and emerging threats. It is understandable that in addition to the immediate protection of the transatlantic area, NATO is also addressing global policy issues by coordinating the security policy of Allies.

Investing in security is the responsibility of every state. The credibility of the ties between Allies depends on it. For a considerable time now, Estonia’s defence spending has exceeded two per cent of its GDP. However, transatlantic ties cannot rely on financial contributions alone; instead, they have always been based on an interest in protecting common values, maintaining peace and preserving freedom.
The leadership of the United States is indispensable to NATO’s collective defence; the commitment of the United States to the Alliance has both practical and symbolic value. Therefore, we continue to work towards reinforcing the relationship of trust between Estonia and the United States both bilaterally as well as in international organisations, and we are looking forward to seeing the continued active participation of the United States in protecting the security of the region, including through a military presence.

In addition to United States` participation, a strengthening Europe is critical to Estonia’s security; however, it is not an alternative to transatlantic cooperation. On the contrary, reinforcing the transatlantic link both in the framework of NATO as well as in European Union – United States cooperation must be an integral part of a strengthening Europe. Estonia unequivocally supports closer cooperation between the European Union and NATO.

An active participant in shaping the foreign and security policy of the European Union, it is in Estonia’s interests that the Union speaks in a single, principled voice and can assert itself not only in simple matters but also on complicated issues like relations with Russia and China. We support initiatives that develop the defence capabilities of the European Union; however, I would like to reiterate our position – when it comes to ensuring the security of Europe, there is no alternative to NATO and close transatlantic cooperation with the United States.

In global competition, the European Union can assert itself, above all, through economy and trade. This is why we must become increasingly focused on reinforcing the international system of trade, including on concluding free trade agreements. To maintain our initiative in global competition, we should relaunch negotiations on the free trade and investment agreement between the European Union and the United States. This should be one of the major goals of a geopolitical European Commission.

Estonia is actively and constructively contributing to the policies of the European Union.
Our strategy for establishing Estonia in the European Union has been aptly articulated by Lennart Meri, who was convinced it must be YES. Not a passive ‘yes’, but an active and discerning one. We must know exactly what we want and present good arguments for our decisions and choices.

The joint decisions and policies adopted in the European Union with Estonia’s active participation amplify our policies and the development of Estonia’s economy. The agreement reached in 2020 on the long-term budget and recovery plan of the European Union was an important achievement for Estonia – we ensured instruments for the construction of Rail Baltica as well as our digital and green transition, from Ida-Virumaa to Hiiumaa. The Conference on the Future of Europe begins this year and in Estonia's view, the discussions should focus on developing the economy, reflecting on the EU’s global role and driving digital and green transition in a way that ensures no one is left behind. The parliaments of Member States must have a central role in these future discussions.  

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Estonia’s size does not mean we should be mere spectators in global politics. Quite the contrary, Estonia must actively uphold the current international order. Advancing our interests is based on close cooperation and good relations with allies – in international organisations, regional cooperation as well as bilateral ties.

We will continue to raise the security issues of our region – Ukraine, Belarus, Russia – at the UN Security Council, and remain actively engaged in more distant flashpoints. This year, we are taking on more responsibility in the UN Security Council as one of the penholders for Afghanistan and one of the main negotiators for the arms embargo of Libya. We also consider it important to participate in discussions on the impact of climate change on international security. Not wanting this to remain a one-time effort, we have decided to apply for UN Security Council membership again in 2050.

In addition to UN Security Council membership, our multilateral diplomacy goals include applying for Chairmanship in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to take an active part in solving conflicts in the European Union’s neighbourhood and advance human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic norms, which are all cherished in Estonia.

We also value the Council of Europe where we work with like-minded countries to protect human rights and the rule of law. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Security policy also includes the protection of human rights. Estonia’s policy is based on the idea that states must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, which is a crucial precondition for stable relations between states and successful conflict prevention. The aim of Estonia’s human rights diplomacy is to uphold these principles, which are also stipulated in our constitution, on the international stage. Accordingly, Estonia has again applied for membership in the UN Human Rights Council for 2026-2028. I will soon submit a human rights action plan for adoption to the Government of Estonia, and, characteristically of Estonia, it is underpinned by the ideas and values of Nordic Space.

Climate diplomacy is becoming an increasingly prominent foreign policy issue, and for Estonia, energy policy, where we are undergoing a green transition, is at its centre. Transition to renewable energy is a central element of the Paris Agreement. Estonia must take this opportunity to use it for advancing energy management as the crisis recedes. The technologies that allow us to do this already exist and continue to develop rapidly. Changing energy policies affect the general geopolitical situation, which is something Estonia must take into account when shaping its security policy. I will soon submit a climate diplomacy action plan to the Government of Estonia, and it includes Estonia’s ambition to become an observer on the Arctic Council. 

At the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in May, foreign ministers will discuss Estonia’s application for becoming an active observer in the organisation. Observer status would allow us to deepen our regional cooperation with other countries in the Arctic Council and offer Estonian scientists a chance to participate in discussions on climate change and the environment in this increasingly important region.

Estonia’s security also depends on a safe cyberspace. On the international stage, we have been actively advocating for cybersecurity for years and will continue to do so in the future. Estonia continues to contribute to the cyber deterrence coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom to reinforce our common cybersecurity. Here, I would like to emphasise that close cooperation between democracies is critical for a successful response to aggression in cyberspace. As a country of developed digital services, we can rely only on secure technology when building critical infrastructure and new 5G networks.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

In addition to multilateral diplomacy, active bilateral relations with our allies are also critical for us. Having touched upon the importance of the United States earlier, I would like to highlight the significance of our Allies and partners in Europe. Although the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union, it continues to be a crucial part of European cooperation and remains our close Ally. Our relations have been close in various fields. We would like to see British troops continue to participate in collective defence on Estonian soil. It is in our interests that the future relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom are as close as possible.

In 2021, we are celebrating the centenaries of establishing diplomatic relations with many Allies and partners, which will surely provide an additional impetus to our bilateral relations.

Naturally, the Baltic States and Nordic countries are particularly close to our heart – we share values, history and culture, and we have enjoyed long and outstanding cooperation. As we recover from the pandemic, it is these countries that are particularly important when it comes to contacts in fields such as the economy, trade, investments, the environment and reinforcing regional security.

Regional cooperation helps increase the competitiveness of Estonia and the entire region, which includes the development of transport, energy and digital connections. Together with Latvia and Lithuania, we will move forward with the Rail Baltica project and the synchronisation of Baltic power systems with continental Europe, and we appreciate the European Union’s support for these projects. We will use European Union instruments for prioritising the development of a joint wind farm of Estonia and Latvia. There are plans for compiling reports on bilateral relations with Finland and Sweden in 2021 and 2022 to map cooperation possibilities in the near future, in areas such as wind energy and shaping a common gas market.

Estonia is also actively engaged in the Three Seas Initiative uniting Central and Eastern European countries, which requires our continued and full attention. In 2020, Estonia coordinated the work of the format and hosted the Three Seas Summit. Estonia also officially became a member and investor in the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund. We value the Initiative because it offers a chance to improve connections between EU states and boost relations with important partners like the United States and Germany. I would like to recognise both the President of Estonia as well as the previous government for taking the Initiative forward.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Events in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood have major security policy implications for Estonia.

Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, its abandonment of voluntary international commitments and democratic values and attempts to alter the security architecture of Europe have a direct impact on the security environment around us. The relations of Estonia and Russia cannot be viewed as separate from Russia’s actions on the international stage, and the same applies for the policies of the European Union and NATO towards Russia.
Obviously, good relations with our neighbour Russia are in our long-term interests; however, for this to happen, the policies and actions of Russia must also become neighbourly. It is my conviction that the ratification of the border treaty signed by Estonia and Russia remains in Estonia’s interests and in principle, the current Government of Estonia is ready to move forward on this issue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Estonia has and will continue to support the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine. Crimea remains occupied, hostilities in eastern Ukraine continue, and part of this is in Russia’s hands – which determines our foreign policy actions in the region. Estonia has boosted bilateral relations with Ukraine and Georgia, and has been consistent in keeping the issue of their territorial integrity on the agenda of international organisations, including the UN Security Council, the European Union and NATO. Estonia also continues to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus. Violence must end, political prisoners must be released and a political dialogue needs to be launched, resulting in free and democratic elections.

It is also important to maintain the broader policy ambition of the Eastern Partnership. Estonia is interested in a greater economic, political and values-based convergence between interested Eastern Partnership states and Europe. Estonia is working towards making the Eastern Partnership Summit a reality this year, and we would like to see the long-term objectives and actions for the next decade confirmed at the event.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

I can assure you that the foreign policy of this government is focused on supporting Estonia’s economic development through active business diplomacy to boost exports, investments and tourism. As an open and export-reliant economy, Estonia’s development is best ensured through free trade based on international agreements and rules. Attracting foreign investment is a precondition for economic development. We consider it important to conclude bilateral investment protection agreements and assist Estonian companies operating abroad. We are developing an action plan for the protection of investments, aimed at setting the main lines of action both in international organisations as well as for signing bilateral investment protection agreements.

We have significantly expanded the scope of our business diplomacy. To this end, we have opened new embassies in Singapore and South Korea, increased our focus on Asia and the Pacific, and adopted a strategy for engaging with Africa. In fact, every Estonian embassy also acts as a business diplomacy mission tasked with supporting Estonian companies and attracting foreign investment to Estonia. Estonia’s brilliant reputation is an important precondition for success in business diplomacy – our aim is not to be merely known, but to be known as a forward-looking, innovative and vibrant society.

Activities in the field of development cooperation and humanitarian aid also contribute to Estonia’s foreign policy goals and add to our reputation. Here, too, our priority partners are Eastern Partnership countries – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus, but we are also expanding our activities in Africa. Estonia has taken a leading role among European Union Member States when it comes to supporting digital transition in developing countries. Our experience is in great demand and this area holds substantial potential for combining development cooperation with business diplomacy by complementing projects with the expertise of Estonia’s private sector.

Dear audience,

Estonia cherishes each and every one of its people. This is also our guiding principle in consular affairs and staying in touch with the global Estonian community. A considered and efficient engagement with Estonians abroad contributes to our (future) goals and international success. One of the aims of the global programme for Estonians is to include our diaspora in the development and life of Estonia. To achieve this, we need new targeted action that contributes to Estonia’s future.

We have already taken some steps towards this goal. We conducted a survey last autumn to inform our diaspora policy and launch specific activities. The results provide us with an understanding of the attitudes of Estonians living abroad, their interest in participating in Estonian life and their expectations towards the Estonian state. We are creating the position of an Ambassador at Large for Diaspora Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to increase the cohesion of our diaspora policy.

Members of Parliament,

Effective and consistent foreign policy is essential for the successful functioning of a small state. The past 30 years in international relations have been successful for Estonia because our foreign policy interests and goals have been clear and we have worked towards attaining them together. We can be successful in foreign policy only if we can plan and implement a coherent foreign and security policy. I can assure you that Estonia’s diplomacy is fully committed to our security, the protection of our citizens and the improvement of our people’s lives. A strong Foreign Service and broad support from the public, including, of course, assistance from you, Members of Parliament, help us reach these goals.

Thank you for your attention.

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