There is one thing Estonian politicians and officials do not want to talk about in connection with the country’s EU presidency - the direct benefits of the position. One example of the latter is politicians’ so-called direct link to all important European capitals.
However, the presidency is expected to unite and function internationally instead of concentrating on personal gain, which is why this aspect is kept quiet. The attitude of Estonian officials to the country’s presidency can be summed up with the help of an anecdote that asks the question of what does an Estonian think when he sees an elephant. “The Estonian wonders what the elephant thinks of him,” is the answer.
This approach manifests in the utterances of politicians and officials that emphasize Estonia does not have to make breakthroughs so it could pound its chest but rather take discussion forward successfully and in a balanced manner, moving six months closer to a possible solution.
That is probably among the most difficult to understand aspects of a presidency for a country’s residents: it is important to keep things moving, while there seems to be no tangible benefit. The latter is there; however, it is usually rendered abstract enough not to anger the officials and residents of the other 27 member states. That is why Postimees asked the leaders of the presidency what good it has been for Estonia and Europe so far.
For example, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center Party) has met with heads of all EU member states in the past few months, several times with some. While the function of these meetings is to talk about matters tied to the presidency, it is also possible to talk about Estonia.
“Every meeting, every handshake or discussion is a chance for Estonia to make itself bigger than it is during the presidency,” Ratas explained. For example, Ratas has had several opportunities to talk to French President Emmanuel Macron on whose shoulders great international hopes have been placed.
He has also had the chance to have private meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and PM of Spain Mariano Rajoy in what has only been a short time. Ratas will soon leave for Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Careful discussion ahead
The meeting will probably touch on recent developments in Turkey. At the same time, the EU must take care not to rile the Turkish too much as it has a migration agreement in place with the country. “The agreement we have with Turkey is a good one. We definitely do not want them to back out of it,” Ratas said.
The chance to draw attention to our concerns includes EU neighborhood policy. If countries in the south are more concerned with developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East and corresponding migration issues, we can highlight questions tied to Ukraine where the smouldering war may have lost news value but remains acutely relevant.
These meetings also touch on the central topics of the Estonian presidency. For example the digital field. Despite Ratas’ argument with Commissioner Andrus Ansip (Reform Party) last week, he commends the latter for efforts on the road toward abolishing geoblocking.
“Here we definitely have to commend our commissioner. It is a tangible change. Whether people want to watch soap operas or sports broadcasts in another country, geoblocking can cause a lot of grief,” Ratas explained. As confirmation for Ratas’ words, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Center Party) has said in front of the European Parliament that Estonia wants to issue a regulation to stop the use of unsubstantiated geoblocking.
Other similar topics have seen agreements during Estonia’s presidency. The Council and the European Parliament agreed on July 14 to create an information system to keep track of people who come to the union from outside the Schengen area. As surprising as it may be, no such information system existed so far.
A similar topic was discussed by EU interior and foreign affairs ministers during an unofficial meeting in Tallinn. One of Estonia’s goals is to bring to fruition talks on cross-border use of punishment registers and other databases. Success would probably help avoid situations that have accompanied terrorist attacks in recent years where a member state has information on suspicious persons that it fails to communicate to another in time to prevent an attack.
The de facto head of the presidency, European Union Affairs Director of the Government Office Klen Jäärats said the sides hope to come as far as a legal act regulating the cross-usage of data in fall. “However, it is probable this matter will not be put to bed during our presidency,” Jäärats added.
Language cramp not important
The effective side of the presidency has been overshadowed by discussing our ministers’ language skills so far in Estonia. As one might guess, neither Jäärats nor Ratas regard it as a notable concern.
The men did not, however, give straight answers when asked whether the ministers were accused unjustly. Jäärats said it doesn’t matter whether agreements are made in Estonian, Swahili, or Old Greek. “Those who deal with these matters on a daily basis gave a different mark - A plus. While the language might have been coarse, questions were given capable answers,” Jäärats said. He added that success has been found in taking things that matter to Estonia forward.
Ratas said that several leaders speak their native language during council meetings despite an excellent command of the English language. “Perhaps we are sometimes put ill at ease because we have to speak English,” Ratas said.
Even though Estonia’s presidency events got a lot of spotlight in the media in July, the busier period is still ahead of the country. Jäärats said it is important for Estonian officials to keep their energy for the other half of the period that has at times subsided during previous presidencies.
Ratas has no such fear. “It is said during a lot of meetings that small countries make better presidencies than large ones,” he said.