Symbolic statements do not contribute to solutions

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Sander Ilvest

The past year has seen events that seem to be disheveling international relations to an ever-growing degree. Postimees asked Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser (SDE) how to continue basing one’s decisions on values in increasingly complicated situations.

We spoke around the same time last year. Back then, you said that political extremes have done a better job in what is a new age of political communication. You also said it is likely the political mainstream will catch up. Has that happened?

A year is not a very long time. However, I believe there is far more in terms of realization we cannot allow ourselves to be bested by these extremes. There is preparedness to contribute human resources, money, and intellectual resources toward dealing with all manner of so-called political extremes, as well as malevolent opponents.

We have seen attempts to promote Russia’s agenda in social networks and the web, to influence democratic processes in democratic countries and find weaknesses in freedom of speech, media, and the internet. As well as attempts to exploit those weaknesses.

After initial shocks, mainstream politics has managed to bounce back at recent elections, looking for new equilibrium.

You mentioned the past year’s shocks. Looking at the second half-year, 2016 seems to have been of critical importance in terms of the near past. But was it so noteworthy?

It was. Every individual shock is placed into context in a temporal perspective, and change is mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We attach more meaning to individual shocks when we view them up close. These are surely signs of a longer process and change.

Politics is undergoing polarization and has become more antagonistic. This is the result of significant long-term changes to the information environment people inhabit. We cannot underestimate the information technology revolution.

The surge of information aggressively pushed on people has not doubled or even decupled in the past generation – it has grown hundred- and thousandfold. Information is pushed in an entirely different technical environment that prioritizes information people are believed to be more susceptible to.

This means that people will increasingly live in a world of existing attitudes and preferences that is constantly remade by information they are fed. The effect of this change on politics has not been sufficiently appreciated so far. To be successful at elections, one must stand out and contrast to others, instead of looking for the middle ground. The results have manifested in the elections shocks of the past year.

Coming to one of them… The United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Can Estonia make a choice that is in line with international law in this situation? Have we not cause to recognize the Americans’ decision?

The Estonian embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv, and I see no reason for Estonia to change its position at this time. Just like all our partners in the European Union, Estonia supports the two-state solution. It can only be reached in mutual agreement.

The two-state solution means that a de facto Palestinian state must be created next to Israel one day. This must also be solved between the two sides, which is not possible without the participation of the international community. The latter covers, on the one hand, the United States that has been a key player of the Middle East peace process, but also other countries in the region, including the Arab world.

The European Union’s position has been based on values but has also been very pragmatic. Trump said USA should move its capital to Jerusalem back when he was a presidential candidate. The corresponding decision was made during President Clinton’s term. Administrations have been postponing the move ever since.

Why cannot we recognize Palestine as a state?

It has been Estonia’s position that it is sensible to take steps that can bring the two-state solution closer. In other words, merely symbolic, declarative statements that do not help us move toward a realistic solution and can lead to escalation are not sensible. More so as Estonia has few levers with which to effect true change on its own.

We do not have full consensus in the EU. There are member states that have recognized Palestine as a full state. We recognize the two-state solution, or Palestine’s right to have their own state. I believe it cannot be reached by way of unilateral declarations but rather the peace process and talks between Israel and Palestine, with the international public playing the role of mediator/facilitator.

What should Catalonia do for us to recognize them as a country?

Estonia places great value on a rule-based world order and maintaining the European security architecture. Whatever solution to the situation in Catalonia can only come from playing by the rules. Those rules are the constitutional order of Spain. Estonia is willing to accept solutions born out of playing by that system’s rules and respecting constitutional boundaries. We cannot accept unilateral declarations that ignore this set of rules.

Spain is one of the 28 member states of the European Union. It is our partner, a member of NATO, and our close ally. Naturally, its sovereignty and integrity are important to us. It is not in Estonia’s interests to ignore Spain’s constitutional order.

Therefore, so far as Spain does not wish to recognize Catalan independence, we have no way of recognizing Catalonia?

Catalonia will hold an election before Christmas that will see the participation of all major political forces. Both those who wish for independence and those who want Spanish unity. The election was called by the central government, and provided it takes place with participation of the entire political spectrum and sports a high voter turnout, I believe the representative bodies and executive power it elects will be accepted by Madrid as legitimate partners for solving the crisis.

Brexit talks have reached a certain intermediate point. Are the Brits trying to grin and bear it?

I recently saw a poll in which half the Brits questioned believed the results of talks should be put up for referendum, while a third believed they shouldn’t. Moods have changed. People have realized the leave campaign was largely based on arguments that weren’t entirely honest, true, or able to be taken seriously. A lot of Brits are increasingly worried over Brexit’s potential effect on the UK economy and the future of its companies.

We respect the sovereign right of democratic countries to make certain decisions. That does not mean I personally or the Estonian state believes these steps to be sensible or right. I believe it would have been in Estonia’s interests had the UK decided to stay in the EU. That said, we respect the Brits’ right to decide against it.

The same goes for Catalonia. The fact we respect Spain’s sovereign right to solve domestic matters in the framework of their legislation does not include an assessment of whether we believe a given law or decision is the most sensible. This also applies in the case of the US. I completely respect their right to regulate their healthcare as they have, while it does not include endorsement of specific solutions. These things need to be seen separately.

We see the Paris-Berlin axis becoming increasingly important in Europe. How far can we approve of the situation where states meet in Brussels while true power is increasingly concentrated around that axis?

The European Union has countries with 80 million people and those with one million. Our voices carry differently on the international arena. There are formats where decisions are consensual, while it is also clear it’s far easier for larger countries to break that consensus. That is the reality, and we are aware of our size and weight.

We have managed in the past, and still manage to play a bigger role and have a louder voice than our size would suggest in most matters. However, it is doubtful we will ever be as influential as Germany, France, or the UK in international relations.

French President Emmanuel Macron has replaced German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe’s star politician. Can the revolutionary French be a bit much compared to the levelheaded Germans?

The French people recently elected an entirely new political force. That said, Macron has been a minister in Francois Hollande’s government and is not a complete outsider. He has pursued a relatively revolutionary reform package in the Hollande administration as concerns socioeconomic change in France.

I believe neither radically opposes the status quo. While Macron’s victory is positive in that it’s a breath of fresh air, there is always the risk of enthusiasm-driven elections setting the bar too high, which might result in setbacks and disappointment. Even in cases where enthusiastically elected politicians are objectively successful.

We can say that one recent trend in Europe is elections resulting in parliaments that do not favor convenient coalitions, which causes coalition talks to be dragged out over months. That is why governments are unable to position themselves on the European arena.

While a large part of Europe is looking to Macron, moods are rather different in Poland and Hungary. Do you not feel we are headed toward a major conflict of values in Europe?

It is in our interests for the EU to be united and have as few divisions between the north and south, east and west, or new and old member states as possible. They can never be avoided entirely, and splits run along different axes.

Poland is an extremely important regional player and partner for us in terms of security. We want to work to avoid situations where some Western European countries do not understand developments in Visegrad states or vice versa. And we realize that lack of unity in one question spreads to other

matters. An intensive migration disagreement inside the union inevitably hurts unity in terms of hard security matters.

Estonian politicians talked a lot more about Ukraine and Crimea 18 months ago. Has Estonia not quieted down as well?

The Russian aggression in Ukraine took place in the winter of 2014. The European Union reacted later, in late summer. The package of sanctions has been gradually complemented, as has the policy of not recognizing Crimea.

It is often the case which such crises in the press and political forums that new, altered realities eventually become habitual. It is our task to keep it on the agenda, support Ukraine’s efforts in fighting for its integrity and independence, while reforming the country. So people wouldn’t forget who is to blame for the conflict and who is the victim. Also, that people wouldn’t give up on the matter or go back to pre-crisis communication.

That cannot be allowed, and we haven’t allowed it to happen. The Kremlin is still disgruntled by Europe’s enduring common position.