Hololei: in policy, EU stands as one

Henrik Hololei

PHOTO: Küllike Rooväli / Postimees

Should situation in Ukraine worsen, flood of refugees may hit Estonian doors and then we’d probably wish for the rest of EU to help us, warns European Commission deputy secretary-general Henrik Hololei (45). Just as we want support by the other 27 today.

How surprised were you to be nominated at the new post? (On Sunday, word was out about Mr Hololei being appointed director-general of transport directorate of European Commission; he’ll be the first Estonia to have promoted to such job – E. K.)

I was surprised, sure. With things like that, till the last moment one never knows how it goes. When transport commissioner Violeta Bulc and the commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker made me the proposal, this is a great honour indeed and recognition for work accomplished together with Siim Kallas in that field. It is good to return to the domain which, over the past four and a half years, became very close to my heart, where it is possible to work with fantastic people and very interesting topics.

(Mr Hololei being a transport fan is easily seen in his office adorned by loads of plane and train models, and a huge Greek cargo ship model covered by glass – E. K.)

Naturally, it is also an interesting challenge to be working with the new – now in office for half a year – Slovenian commissioner Ms Bulc.

In my new job, which is supposed to launch on October 1st, there will be lots of connections with other areas: jobs, economic growth, energy. Also, digital economy has topics related to this which fit perfectly into the plan set in motion by commission’s vice president Andrus Ansip.

Sure, it’s a pity to leave the current job behind. Alas, during its initial year every new commission will introduce substantial staff changes.

How much say did you have about the domain appointed?

This process is indeed guided by the commissioners, as coordinated by the president of the commission and his team. Every commissioner was asked to present three potential candidates whom they wished to see as director-general in their domains. On the basis of that, further consultations were carried out with the vice-presidents.

Retrospectively, may I say there were more than one of such commissioners who wished to work with me. But the transport commissioner had a very weighty message, that she did not want just somebody who might be the transport director-general, but who wanted to be the transport director-general. I think that as we met I was able to convince her that the domain was close to my heart and that, thanks to my earlier work, I know it rather well.

How much have you been in contact with Ms Bulc before?

The Slovenian commissioner is a new commissioner. She has a business background. That will surely be a strength, as the transport domain is very business-centred.

No, we had not met much before, but as I had been in the field earlier, I guess I was referred to meet her. Looks like she liked the meeting.

Back to your current job: where did the refugee plan come from, the one discussed at this summit?

When talking about today, it is important to note that a vital decision regarding which it was assumed that it would need to be discussed at heads of state and governmental leaders level has already been taken – the anti-Russia sanctions are extended.

I think that this is an important message of the EU unity and that we all have a common understanding of how the Minsk agreement is being kept – that, is, not kept. And also that both Europe and also USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Norway will continue their close cooperation. It’s good to see that the visions, regarding that, have synced really well.

The fact that Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras visits Russia does not affect the discussion here?

There have been an abundance of opinions that EU heads of state and governmental leaders who separately meet with Russian leadership would damage the united EU front, as if, as agreed policy is being discussed. But, as related to the sanctions, this has never actually happened. This is a spin.

It is assumed that when there are some meetings it would mean that afterwards people take on obligations. Let me tell you the discussions have been very correct. If anybody has any contacts with the Russian leadership, at least this has not been carried over to the single policies.

Which leads us to migration. This also is a single policy where it must be very clearly considered that EU has 28 members and if one or another has problems, then the rest must regard these as their own.

Also, the commission’s proposal is to alleviate the problem mainly in two nations whose flood of illegal migration indeed is significantly larger than their ability to receive.

The other issue is that our current activity needs to be geared towards sparing human lives. The tragedies on the Mediterranean may not keep repeating. To have hundreds of people perishing at a time is not normal for European shores in 21st century.

There’s the other side to the issue. On the one hand, we are helping nations with problems. But we also need to engage the existing EU law regarding expulsion and return.

Obviously, whoever enters Europe must not automatically obtain refugee status. We need to focus on those who are actually refugees. We may not, at the same time, enhance entry into Europe for mere economic refugees.

Indeed, they are all coming through third countries which means these third countries are not keeping their promises. With them, we have re-admission agreements which also clearly need to be applied.

Thirdly, this is all just fighting the consequences. Much more clearly, we will also need to focus on the main problems – the war in Syria, the situation in Libya. We need to link cooperation programmes with third countries to them taking their obligations seriously and try to also build up their own social-economic aspects.

In Estonia, often the thinking is that so what, this is far away. Tomorrow, this may be at our doorstep. Due to the crisis in Ukraine, hundreds have already been forced to leave their homes. Maybe this will also escalate, tomorrow or the day after.

Though this is important, people perhaps fail to realise, being self-centred, that whatever is happening at the Mediterranean today may happen in Eastern Europe tomorrow. We would also want the other EU nations to be receptive to our problems should we face them. When for instance we are talking about Ukraine, we want the EU to stand united.

We need to understand the problems of the other European nations, we need to help then just as we would like them to help us with our problems.

But, in addition to understanding the allies, they do also discuss repelling the problem.

When we have an understanding attitude towards member states with problems, and towards people who are refugees indeed, then we will also take a serious approach to stop large floods of immigrants into Europe who have no genuine reason for coming.

On the one hand, Europe needs extra working hands. For that, all legal channels exist. We need to fight for illegal channels to not blossom, and that the organised crime through them would not work, such as makes tremendous money on these miserable people brought to Europe.

This can only be a broad based plan involving various components as the commission has already tabled. But these components will also need to be in balance. First in line, however, we need to tackle the primary problem and that the understanding that we have solidarity would touch all 28 member states.

How much faith do you have in military solutions? Like, ideally, the EU naval operation EUNAVFOR Med initiated this week will be fighting the smugglers on the coast of Libya.

The plan is understood and needed, but the EU does operate within international law and for the full implementation of the plan it still needs approval by UN Security Council. In order for that to happen, it also takes the internationally recognised Libyan government to clearly express desire for the mission to be launched. This would allow advancement to the next phase of the mission which, among the harsher measures, would include neutralising smugglers’ vessels.

Today, there is no such UN mandate as yet. Countries like Russia, China and Venezuela are longing to see what the Libyan message is going to be, and thus far they have said nothing. The EU is ready to invest in it, but it cannot cross the boundaries set by international law.