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Tõniste: chairing the Ecofin meeting was ten times easier than I expected

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PHOTO: Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP / Scanpix

Chairing one of the most important meetings of the European Union was easier than expected, said Estonia’s Minister of Finance Toomas Tõniste, who was criticized for his command of English at the European Union council of  ministers of economy and finance (Ecofin).

While attending the EU meetings has become a routine for several Estonian ministers and all ministers have received special preparation for the presidency, Tõniste, who was appointed minister of finance only a month ago, only had a couple of weeks to get ready.

“Frankly, it was ten times easier than I feared”, Tõniste said in an interview to Postimees, having compared chairing the meeting with the job of a sailboat captain. “Effectively it is just like chairing any meeting, you just have to know the procedures”, he added.

“They have a very efficient and experienced (EU) Council secretariat here. I had several briefings. Fortunately I was able to attend the previous Ecofin (June 16) so I could see what it is like, how it works and how Malta (the previous presiding nation) manages and to make acquaintances”, Tõniste said.

The Council of the EU secretariat prepared all council chairmen for the meetings; its operating is essentially comparable to that of the Estonian Government Office. While in the meeting hall, Tõniste was backed by Estonia’s representative to the EU Ambassador  Kaja Tael, Ministry of Finance deputy secretary general for finance and foreign relations  Märten Ross and special representative Märt Kivine, who heads the negotiations over the EU 2018 budget. The Ministry of Finance and Estonia’s permanent representation in Brussels also helped Tõniste to get ready.

According to Tõniste it had been initially planned to chair the meeting in English, but it was decided the day before to use Estonian instead. “Actually, many parties here recommended that it is a good tradition to hear the language of the presiding country and out interpreters would be happy as well,” Tõniste said.

“To let them hear Estonian here. The second reason was to make the meeting more relaxed “, Tõniste explained the reasons for changing the plans the day before the meetings. He added  that the meetings had been relaxed indeed.

Whether to chair the council’s work in English or to use one’s mother tongue is the decision of the presiding country. While the finance minister of Malta, the previous presiding country, chaired the meetings in English, which is one of the official languages of the island nation, the Finnish and Latvian ministers of finance have chaired Ecofin in their native tongue.

“Since I learned German at school and have studied English on my own and still have to work on it, I can easily make contact with German-speaking ministers”, Tõniste explained, referring to his German and Austrian colleagues. “Command of German is my advantage.”

With the exception of the so-called round table at the beginning of Ecofin, where the chairman opens the meeting, the rest of the forum takes place behind closed doors. Journalists are briefed at the official press conference after the meeting with the presiding country’s minister of finance being one of the speakers.

Besides Tõniste, Valdis Dombrovskis, European Commission Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue, also in charge of Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, faced the press. Jüri Laas, advisor and press official of Estonia’s permanent representation at the EU, played a supporting role.

Although the Estonian media criticized Tõniste for failing to answer the journalists’ questions when arriving at Ecofin after a brief speech in English, the press had the opportunity to address the Estonian minister after the meeting.

Only one Italian reporter took advantage of it, asking Tõniste about the EU budget. Another question addressed to Tõniste and Dombrovskis both, was answered by the Latvian vice-president. As far as Postimees knows, no foreign journalist wanted to interview Tõniste.

Those participating in the closed meeting are careful to comment on the discussions to the media and public criticism is avoided as a rule, unless one is using it for some private purpose. This tends to be an exception.

According to journalists with lengthy experience of Brussels, who talked to Postimees, there is nothing unusual in the presiding country’s minister chairing the meeting and answering the correspondents’ questions in his native language.

Although some journalists mentioned Tõniste’s shaky English, a Brussels correspondent of a southern member country was surprised at the similarity between Estonian and Finnish.

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