Ansip hopes Paet fills MEP seat left empty

Andrus Ansip


A European Commission vice president starting next week, Andrus Ansip recommends Urmas Paet as MEP in his place. The one mandated strongest by the people ought to take the seat, Mr Ansip tells Evelyn Kaldoja of Postimees as interviewed in Strasbourg.

On November 1st already, you are stepping into office as European Commission vice president over single digital market. The career as MEP turned out like probation period at other jobs. What did you manage to learn?

For starters, the whole arrangement was quite a shock: how speaking time is distributed between factions according to size, and how it is further distributed inside the factions. And even with these one-minute-talks we’ve sometimes been shown over TV, it is not that you go and ask and receive; rather, once you have been given the floor, the next time may come after months of waiting. Here, in the Riigikogu, if one wants to say something the one presses the button and is allowed to speak up, as a rule. Here, it felt distant somehow, aloof.

On the second plenary meeting already, I had it figured out and there was a time that I was ranking 6th, I think, in the entire parliament by comments. In this regard, I acclimatised fast.

But to really get going will probably take time. Now that I have passed the hearing for a commissioner, I may confidently say lots of MEPs are among top European experts in some specific narrow fields. To be able to have a say on European level, getting specialised is a must.

Lots of old cadre are real good experts, such as really shape the EU legal space. Of new MEPs, one can’t expect that as yet. They are faced with choices: to pick a narrow specialty, or then not to choose anything at all – and many will make a living like that...

With speeches and distribution of commission seats, there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of the political group. Have you not envied Valdis Dombrovskis, for instance, for belonging to European People’s Party – the largest one there is?

Oh no! It’s not like they generalise that the biggies grab their stuff and the rest get leftovers. With a coalition, the seats are divided proportionally.

While I was Prime Minister of Estonia, we had a rule to grant more ministerial portfolios to the smaller partner as prescribed by parliament proportions. By doing so, others have next to no options to make a better offer. Such coalitions last longer, as also evident over these past nine years.

Do the EPP and soc dems consider the liberals’ ALDE factions? I’ve heard statements like if it’s not okay for ALDE, let them go sit next to British conservatives and reformist eurosceptics.

That’s not true! It may safely be said that EPP and soc dems do not have all the votes needed, as the European Parliament factions are not as united as in Riigikogu. Within the factions, there are always deputies state-wise, or groups of deputies, who are not of the general opinion and do not vote with the faction.

In practical life, the two factions do not have a majority in the European Parliament. Tray votes are much more widespread than in national parliaments. This is to be understood, as the party spectre is much broader here than in Estonia, while the number of factions is quite comparable with us.

The way the commissioners are selected, one must prepare for the hearings – the job interview – while already thinking about what to do at the job and who to have in your cabinet... 

I have already thought about that!

Was it because you had these multiple tasks while being MEP that you fell ill?

No, a virus will not ask about that. This is not usually happening to me, but now it was the worst of timing... Got some virus and it stayed for quite a while.

Then, I went to see the doctor here in Strasbourg, at the parliament. They said you have something in the left lung, gave me antibiotics. Having had a 39 degree fever for a week, by the next morning the antibiotics pulled the fever down.

I thought it was all over but then the cold and the cough started to come, and following good advice I did go to Tartu University Hospital where, upon tests, they declared pneumonia both sides. 

It’s all over now. Good riddance.

How did you see to not sharing the fate of the flunked Slovenian candidate Alenka Bratušek?

I think I had several things going for me that she did not have. Firstly, the work here at the parliament, knowing parliamentary work. For 28 times, I met with representatives of various factions and committees. I met the people who had issues, or concerns. From the meetings, I picked up a lot I could use at the hearing afterwards.

Also, Ms Bratušek was Prime Minister for a very short time, but I had nine years at it. I have been at various debates, stood for definite stuff at EU summits as prime minister, I have digested and experienced the topics. Therefore, before I ever learned about my portfolio, I knew I was quite well prepared in several topics.

Thanks to Estonia having an excellent image – the digital domain included – the attitude towards me was very friendly and positive. With Ms Bratušek, that was not the case.

Bad pre-tuning?

Yes, the pre-tuning was… Here, it’s quite widespread that domestic opposing parties try to pull rug from under own country candidate. With her also, videos were sent to YouTube and sadly communication from Slovenia was nonexistent. The claims were not dealt with. It all showed.

But the current new Slovenian commissioner Violeta Bulc is a very colourful and strong persona. I think Slovenia has gotten an excellent commissioner. While this is only the beginning, in some ways we may still say it’s all well that ends well. Remarkably, the new commission can start working on November 1st. With the former one it was somewhere around February 10th I recall. This shows the strength of Mr Juncker’s team: they did it.

Are you burdened by who from your party will fill your vacant seat as MEP?

That’s not for me to decide and choose. The next in line to choose is Urmas Paet. I do highly value the European Parliament and I think the one with the strongest mandate by the people ought to accept the seat.

As I just said, people do get specialised here. Those among Europe’s best experts in their domain are highly esteemed here. I do believe Urmas Paet might become one such specialist.

In Estonia, people tend to think that people go to be MEPs and we will soon quit hearing about them. Not necessarily so. I see how actively Tunne Kelam does his job. Kaja Kallas has entered in very actively, as also Marju Lauristin.

I don’t like to leave anybody unmentioned, but... The political views of some people fit me not, but I do recognise the dedication the people show.

There was the criticism during your hearing that while becoming digital chief, you aren’t using social media. How about you and Twitter now?

Well at a certain point in time I did have the most popular account in Belgium! It was when we did out question and answer hour on Twitter. I think we did over a hundred tweets in the hour – not bad.

I think it’s the body language that counts most – a sign of the new commission or its digital vice president is open. This is much more important. But I do not think that being active in social media may somehow correlate with launching some digital solutions or creating a digital state or shaping the EU digital architecture. There are two different issues.

Like our Maret Maripuu... not perhaps overly active in social media. But now, who would doubt the usefulness of e-prescription in Estonian medical care. And she was the godfather of is. The e-prescription is a European success story and here nobody will believe that the entire solution cost under €1m.  

At times, people link activeness in social media with ability to develop digital solutions – but these two aren’t really connected at all.

While in social media, other work may suffer...

A politician must be active. While in Estonia, I felt no need to be in social media, being quite available to media.

When daily at press conferences or briefings and journalists can reach you over mobile phone, there’s not much left over for one to definitely get off one’s chest via social media. 

In European Commission, however, social media is a must to forward one’s messages. The scale is a lot broader you see and no-one thinks it possible to answer all calls by journalists on European level.

The initial Twitter-experience was nice. The hour of questions-answers created a feedback in Belgium livelier than in Estonia. Mainly, the tweeters were from Belgium, but some were from elsewhere as well. There were rather few from Estonia, but some did tweet from the UK, Germany, and many from Belgium.