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Estonia at the EU's helm

Isabelle de Pommereau
June 29, 2017

Eager to take over the EU Council's rotating presidency, Estonia has said it can help bridge divides among EU members. A digital pioneer, the Baltic nation has much to contribute to the bloc's cyberdefense.

Fahne von Estland, flag of estonia
Image: imago stock&people

When people talk about Europe's troubles, Estonian Klen Jaarats looks back at the cataclysmic upheavals that shook his own life. At 41, he's gone from collectivism to free economy, dictatorship to democracy and lived through three currencies. He was a twentysomething lawyer when, the Iron Curtain gone, he helped negotiate his country's entry into the European Union, paving the way for a journey culminating with Estonia adopting the euro.

"Estonia still remembers the time when it was already great if nothing bad happened," said Jaarats, the Estonian government's head of European Union affairs.

Young talent like him rebuilt Estonia into one of the world's most connected - and firmly pro-European - societies. It's home to both Skype and a cyber army. Now, as the country prepares for six months as the head of the rotating EU Council Presidency, which starts Friday, Jaarats said he feels his country has what it takes to inject a bit of this optimism into a battered European Union. 

Read more: It's cool to be pro-EU with popular French President Emmanuel Macron

Renewed optimism

The presidency job, brought six months forward after the UK dropped out to concentrate on Brexit negotiations, is one the country of 1.3 million takes seriously. It spent 75 million euros ($85 million) and hired 300 people to oversee some 200 events in Estonia. The Estonian presidency will be a digital one, Jaarats added. Starting next week, EU Council delegates will be able to ride around Tallinn, Estonia's capital, in self-driven buses.

But after a year marked by fears of an EU collapse, he said the focus should be unity. 

"From the point of view of the whole Europe political situation, we have to show that the 'EU 27' works, now that Brexit negotiations started," Jaarats said. 

With the Dutch and French elections out of the way - and the prospect of two far-right, anti-EU forces leading key European countries gone as well - he said there is a "newly found goodwill" among EU members. "It is a new situation," Jaarats added.

Klen Jäärats (photo provided by Estonian government)
Jaarats told DW Estonia has much to offer the EUImage: Estonian government

The worst may have been avoided, but a widening east-west rift has been tearing through the bloc. It separates the so-called Visegrad Group of four central European states - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - from Europe's core, led by Germany and France. Tensions rose over Poland's and Hungary's refusal to take their share of refugees. Earlier this month EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker threatened to punish the two countries.

Reaching out to all

As a small peripheral country on Europe's eastern frontier, Estonia is eager to strengthen its bonds with Europe's western core but remains loyal to eastern neighbors, particularly Poland and Hungary - with which it shares painful Soviet memories. Estonia wants to reach out to both sides of Europe, Jaarats said.

But observers have pointed out creating consensus among EU members won't be easy.

"It's good to aim at unity, to keep all EU member states on board, but Estonia's main interest is to stay in the core group of deeply integrated members like Germany and France. To move on with new reforms in the eurozone area and defense cooperation," said Kristi Raik, a researcher with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs specialized in Europe's eastern regions. "It wants to show it is a pro-European country that participates in every possible form of integration possible, but at the same time Estonia is reluctant to criticize Poland."

Coping with Russia

Russia's aggressiveness in the Ukraine and the Baltic Sea region, as well as its cybermeddling in the region and beyond, have shown "how important it is for Estonia to have Poland as an ally," Raik said.

The letters EU surrounded by golden stars on a blue background showing computer code
Unity in the EU continues to be a laborious undertakingImage: colourbox

"It's tricky to avoid saying anything critical about Poland and at the same time sending the message that Estonia is different from the Visegrad countries."

Jaarats said the migration and solidarity issues are "one of the most difficult fights, one with no simple solution," but added that not enough consideration has been given to the varied cultural and historical nuances of Europe's eastern members.

"There has been a sense of unfairness in pointing fingers toward eastern countries like Poland and Hungary," Jaarats said. There needs to be a "sensitive compromise among countries based on will. I don't think it works to start punishing countries. It will alienate, and Brussels' dictate not well taken."

A pioneer in cyberdefense

Coming on the heels of major cyberattacks hitting the election systems of major Western democracies from the United States to France, Estonia, which established itself as a pioneer in cyberdefense and is home to NATO's Centre of Cyber Excellence, feels it can help.

"This waking up toward cyber issues is only natural," Jaarats said. "Estonia can push things. The more we can do on the practical level the better."

Pushing for a digital Europe

Over the next six months Estonia will showcase itself as a motor in the drive toward a digital Europe.

"Estonia is able to show, in concrete terms, what it means to be more digital and build e-government," said Raik. "It's done it, and it has got clear benefits."

From voting to declaring taxes to getting doctors' prescription, Estonians do everything online. They trust the system because it is safe and transparent, and it has saved money and cut down the risk of corruption, says Gilles Feith of the Government IT Center Luxembourg.

Last week, Luxembourg signed a deal with Estonia to host Estonia's first "data embassy." Faith said the embassy, which is meant to safeguard its critical services and keep them running should war strike Estonia, is a step toward establishing a digital market.

"If Europe as a model has to succeed, we have to really achieve building this digital market," Feith said.

A positive European story

Heading the EU Council is, however, a largely ceremonial role and does not bestow any special decision-making powers upon Estonia.

"If anything, it can be presented as a positive European story," said Raik. "It's small and peripheral, but at the same time very involved and committed. It's good for the EU to have this kind of narrative."