Former prime ministers of Finland and Estonia Alexander Stubb and Taavi Rõivas told Postimees about their terms in office when Europe temporarily lost its head as a result of Russia’s aggression. They also answered the question why former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure at the Brexit referendum was a culmination of the past few decades.
Let us first take a trip back in time to 2014 when hostilities broke out in Ukraine. How difficult was it to attend European Union meetings with war in Europe on the agenda? Especially considering the fact neither of you had any experience with war.
Alexander Stubb: In truth, I had some. Today is the right day to talk about it (the interview took place on August 8 - J. V.). If you recall, August 8, 2008 was the day Russia attacked Georgia. I was foreign minister at the time, while Finland held the OSCE chairmanship. We had to do something about it. I came out of holiday and flew to Tbilisi with then French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (France held the EU presidency - ed.).
Two weeks later I gave a speech to Finnish ambassadors in which I said that for the first time since the Cold War politics of force have returned to Europe. I said it was the first time we had seen the reemergence of spheres of influence. Many people laughed and asked me what I was on about. We later saw Russia repeat its Georgia policy in Ukraine.
Taavi Rõivas: What happened in Georgia was an alarm bell. It was a time when not all heads of state were as informed as Alexander. A big part of the West just hit the snooze button when that alarm went off. 2014 was a year of awakening for many. Perhaps not for Estonians and Finns, but for countries that believed war would never get to us again. I’m proud of how we almost always found consensus in terms of how to handle the situation during these, primarily European Council, meetings. We were criticized outside these meetings as it can often look like complicated situations can have simple solutions from afar.
Even though the sanctions policy was heavily criticized, we succeeded in putting a price on attacking a neighboring country. And it is considerable. Luckily the EU arrived at a value-based position in this matter.
Did the knowledge scare you as prime ministers of countries neighboring Russia?
Stubb: Finland should not be compared to Ukraine as we are a full member of the EU and euro zone and cooperate closely with NATO. We felt safe in terms of the political aftermath; however, we had to pay an economic price. For example, Valio lost around 25 percent of its export due to sanctions; however, that was the price Finland and the company had to pay.
Rõivas: Estonia and Finland were among the countries hit hardest by counter-sanctions. However, I never heard Finland, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania complain that sanctions should be eased during Council meetings. It was clear that putting a price tag on Ukraine’s freedom would be immoral.
Stubb: I believe the security situation in the Baltic region would be much worse were Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania outside of NATO. It provides a so-called security umbrella. Countries like Finland and Sweden, that are not in NATO, benefit from that umbrella in several ways. We are very grateful for the Baltics’ NATO membership.
The international press describes the Baltic countries as states on the front. Will that be our fate for the next 20-30 years?
Stubb: Hopefully it is indeed your fate to be a border state next to Russia because otherwise that border would run somewhere else, and we don’t want that. However, let us recall that Finland’s border with Russia is more than twice as long as those of all other EU members combined. It spans 1,300 kilometers. We live with that knowledge, and we always have. Realpolitik is how a lot of people would describe it. We can change a lot of things, but we can’t change geography - provided we don’t use force. In that sense we want to maintain our status quo.
We believe that the NATO and EU membership of the Baltic states will help us keep that status quo. Finland and the Baltics form a part of the Western world, no doubt about it. No one questions that. And if they do, there will be consequences.
Finland is not a part of NATO.
Stubb: Unfortunately not. Yet.
In your opinion, what is Finland’s view of defense cooperation in the EU in this light?
Stubb: We see it as something very positive. We are realists, and we understand security guarantees and core decisions regarding the security of the EU will be made in NATO as 22 of the 28 EU member states are also in NATO. No fewer than 94 percent of the citizens of the EU are in NATO. However, it would be foolish to say no to deeper defense cooperation in the EU as it is something we want to maximize. Cooperation with both the EU and NATO. That is why we are very much in favor of PESCO and the common foreign and security policy.
Rõivas: Another thing to grow out of this crisis was the realization Europe cannot cut its defense spending. Rather we need to consider what capabilities to invest in and what additional defense plans to draw up. Defense spending has started to grow slowly but surely.
Will defense matters take center stage in the EU for the coming decades?
Stubb: I believe they already have. The European Commission has proposed the creation of the European Defense Fund inside which defense industries can cooperate. The logic behind European integration is that integration on one front will create pressure for integration in other areas. In this case it was initially the common foreign policy that led to the realization that perhaps it would make more sense to have a common foreign and security policy. Next came discussions of what that could be.
It is crisis management. We need to go on missions to manage crises. What will we need? We need battle groups. And from there it develops into defense cooperation. The logic is that Europe is constantly deepening its common foreign and security policy. I personally welcome that.
Rõivas: It is not just self-defense. We are in Mali together with the Finns under the EU flag. Everything tied to domestic security matters must also improve. It is one area where countries are perhaps too protective and would benefit from a little openness. The fewer secrets we have as allies, the stronger we are together.
Will going this far not result in the United States of Europe?
Stubb: No, it will not. We should think of the EU as more than an international organization but less than a country. Therefore it has more elements that can be seen as those of a federation or a state. For example a joint currency that is rather characteristic of countries.
The EU will always remain a combination of the two. In that sense talk of a European state or federation is exaggerated. That would require a common budget and taxation. The EU budget should be more than 1 percent of national budgets. We should simply be more pragmatic in our cooperation.
Rõivas: I agree completely. We are very far from a United States of Europe. We have 28 member states that are very different at times and very similar at others with their own languages and culture. We are far more versatile than the United States of America. I believe in close cooperation between EU countries, and there are so many things regarding which we have agreements but that do not work fully yet.
What about another direction altogether: there are blocs in the European Union - Benelux, Visegrad countries, the Nordics etc. With Brexit in mind, isn’t this kind of convergence into blocs and camps a threat to the EU?
Stubb: With Brexit in mind, I’m positively surprised at how united the other 27 member states have been. We all regard Brexit as an oddity and a mistake; however, we will survive it. I believe the other 27 member states know the United Kingdom would not have it better out than in, and that no other member would entertain the idea.
Europe can always be divided into blocs: north vs. south, lutherans vs. catholics, small vs. big, free market fundamentalists vs. protectionists. There is an endless number of such quotients; however, one thing is for sure: the Nordics and the Baltics always support the free market and the common market, and we will be losing an ally in the UK. It is something we must acknowledge. That is why I’m glad Estonia’s presidency stands for the digital common market and trade relations.
We have blocs; however, Brexit and Trump have been uniting phenomena. It is as if we have suddenly stirred from sleep and realized: “Bloody hell. We do not want this union to fall apart.” I see more unity.
Even looking at how Poland and Hungary feel about the EU and their obligations?
Stubb: These are specific cases. I would recall how the EU is based on rule of law, which is why the Commission has launched procedures regarding Poland. Most EU countries are behind that decision. There are always different voices and political movements - it is a part of democracy. The EU is far more united than it was a short time ago.
Rõivas: Thinking like a politician, it is at times hugely popular to adopt anti-European sentiment and plug a hole in your domestic interests. However, this clearly does not work to the benefit of the big picture. The general understanding is that not many people believed the EU could find consensus in all recent matters. We both know the atmosphere in the Council is very constructive, and that everyone wants to find that consensus.
And yet David Cameron is a telling warning. We saw what happened when he had one set of ideas in the Council and something entirely different for the media. Where did the EU go wrong in terms of the Brits’ decision to leave it?
Stubb: The answer is twofold. The Council is a fellowship. It is like a great big psychotherapy session for us (laughs - J. V.). We all come from our countries with our personal challenges, crises, and criticism and gather in a room as 28 people who spend all of their time in the same situation. We understand each other and pat each other on the back, saying it’s not so bad, and that we’ll manage. The work of the Council includes a human factor. It is 28 people working together. You can have your own idea of Viktor Orban, Francois Hollande, or David Cameron; however, we knew each other as friends and harbored no ill intentions.
Now about Cameron. David wanted to make sure two things would happen: firstly that the UK would remain in the EU, and secondly to silence his anti-European opponents. History will say he failed in both. He had success in many other things, economic reform etc. However, Brexit is obviously a regrettable failure for us all.
What did we do wrong? It impossible to single out a specific moment. I do not believe for a moment that the result would have been any different had we spent more time negotiating the four items Cameron put on the table before Brexit.
It is the dynamics of British domestic policy and the result of work done by the anti-EU press in the UK. If after having spent 40 years saying how the EU is nonsense you are finally asked to vote, you will vote against it. That is what happened in the United Kingdom.
Rõivas: It is always a temptation for politicians. Looking at international challenges, it is always easier to say it is the anonymous Brussels that is ordering us to do it. There is no such thing - Brussels is all of us. As practitioners of austerity policy, we both had to explain to our people why we need to help Greece, Spain, and others who sported a different view of fiscal policy. Politicians did good work in both countries at the time.
I agree with Alexander when it comes to Brexit. There is nothing the EU could have done differently to change the outcome of the referendum.
Former Russian premier Viktor Chernomyrdin had a good saying for that: “We wanted the best, but it turned out as per usual.” Why is it popular to be anti-EU in a situation where it provides its members with funding and benefits?
Stubb: I do not believe the EU is a simple arithmetic problem membership in which can be summed up by how much is gained by investing.
I believe we can all agree that stable economic growth would be best for the European peace project that is the EU. What are the key elements in making sure this century would be as successful for Europe as the last one?
Stubb: To begin, it would pay to keep in mind that the economy is cyclic in nature. When the EU started in 1952 as the coal and steel community, the idea was to perpetuate our economic success by virtue of market economy based on four basic freedoms. However, that too is very cyclic. We had a boom in the 1950s and 60s but a recession in the 70s. As a reaction to the latter, the common market was created in the 1980s. When the Cold War ended, the goal was to tie the Eastern Bloc to the EU, after which came another financial crisis.
Should we anticipate rapid and long-term economic growth? The answer is no. We should get used to growth figures of 1-2 percent, 3 at the most.
Rõivas: Finland has probably been one of the most successful countries in history. They have obviously done something right. Even in a situation where growth has stood still for two years the foundation of their economy remains strong. Finland is a perfect example of how to build a country in 100 years and be a major success story. Estonia has had less time; however, we have done very well in the past 25 years. Our big hope is more free trade with the EU and the world. I hope it will allow us to catch up to Finland and Sweden. We need to keep an eye on what Finland, Sweden, but also Singapore have done, and not copy them, but figure out our success story.
Stubb: Finland has gained the most from globalization in the past quarter century. Our GDP grew by about $1,500 per capita annually during that period. Of course Nokia played a part in this. However, to answer your question, small countries like Finland and Estonia need to specialize. Estonia has marketed itself as e-Europe. This has been successful in that it suggests it is not about natural resources, but services - e-residency, e-voting, e-prescriptions etc. Success here will create a brand that can then be converted into an economic edge. In that sense Estonia has recently been what Finland was in the 1990s.