President expects politicians to stay foreign policy course

Evelyn Kaldoja
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Photo: Tairo Lutter

Forces in favor of maintaining Estonia’s foreign policy course form the majority in both the parliament and the government, President Kersti Kaljulaid says concerning the approval of the UN Global Compact on Migration. She adds that the Riigikogu and government now need to give assurances of this through corresponding decisions.

The meeting in Marrakesh first and foremost impacts your calendar. Did you ever think the migration framework and the UN would become hot political topics in Estonia?

I’m glad that people’s questions will be debated in the most transparent format, in the parliament in other words. I agree with MPs who said that the Riigikogu should hear this matter when the debate first appeared.

Today, nine days have passed since I said the government should make a decision.

The positive aspect of this entire discussion is that people in Estonia will better understand the UN as an organization where all 190 countries – democratic and non-democratic – are forced to admit there are matters that require global attention.

We are also beginning to realize that the UN process is different from how things are done in the EU for instance. The latter has a structure for decision-making: required majorities, things that always require consensus, executive mechanisms etc. The UN has none of that. We are beginning to understand that the world is largely based on frameworks, simply agreeing that there are problems that need to be addressed.

A lot has also been said of the negative aspects. There has been a lot of misinformation.

That is why I’m glad our justice chancellor was clear in her statement on what this framework entails. And that the Riigikogu will take the matter under consideration once more with all the necessary reservations pointed out by the chancellor. Her statement exactly describes what this compact is and isn’t.

Of course, none of that will deliver the government from having to decide as the foreign service act makes what will happen in Marrakesh first and foremost their concern.

I would like to add that we will gain nothing by burying our heads in the sand in the face of the question of whether migration exists or not. It exists. We also migrate, and we take great interest in how our labor migrants are treated in other countries.

When we think of our own movement, we usually think in the context of Europe’s open labor market. Free movement of labor, clear rights and obligations make it effortless inside the EU. Outside of it, we are also simple labor migrants. That is something to consider from time to time.

What is the spirit of the document in short?

Global acceptance that there is a problem [with migration] and that it needs to be addressed. Just like climate change.

It also includes recommendations for moving discussion forward regarding which we really should think whether we want to comply and how to go about it. Our sovereignty will remain intact, and we are free to shape our own legal environment, talk to partners, allies, third countries – the compact changes nothing in those terms.

It also summarizes what countries have previously agreed on in the UN. For example, that a person has human rights wherever they may be in the world.

A political declaration is always a realization of something important that requires major global efforts to address. Global efforts go far beyond decisions to build pipelines or railroads. It may take decades before a consensus is reached in terms of what should be done.

You have intervened in the process in Estonia three times in the past week and a half. Sunday before last, when you said the government should decide; then on Thursday and now yesterday (the day before – ed.) when you met with representatives of parties. Why those moments?

My first position was that it is great the parliament wants a say in this matter and that the government should take another look. The last we heard both the government and the parliament’s foreign affairs committee had already discussed the compact which is where we proceeded from at the time.

This led to a situation where it seemed I was about to act alone, independently from the Riigikogu and the government. It was vital to communicate that what matters in a parliamentary country is that we all pursue the same foreign policy. A country like Estonia cannot afford anything else.

But this common foreign policy must be based on a common feel for how things stand. By today, we know that forces who feel that Estonia’s recent foreign policy course stands form the majority in both the parliament and government. That course prescribes acknowledging a world based on rules and active participation in it instead of storming out of the room.

We know that likeminded individuals have the upper hand in the parliament and the government. The question now is how to make sure Estonia would stay its foreign policy course. That is what I asked those involved to ponder in my statement yesterday.

To what extent does the migration framework debate affect Estonia’s campaign in the UN Security Council?

We have worked for a very long time – close to 30 years – to prove to our partners and allies that we honor the same values they do and that our politics has consistency based on those values, that we are a trustworthy partner.

We have been involved in the migration compact process for two years. We have – especially in cooperation with our European partners – participated in the process based on the discussions we’ve held, including in the Riigikogu and government this spring.

We have sought to demonstrate that we are a peacefully developing, confident, to some extent conservative country that is prepared for the future and avoids revolutionary change. It has taken a long time to create this reputation. It would take very little to lose it.

As concerns the UN Security Council campaign, I’ve said before that I believe it has value.

My next trip to Africa will not take me to Marrakesh. Our companies really are interested in the region. I’ve spoken to them in terms of why that is – developed markets are saturated. They are interested in what the rest of the world has to offer.

Taxify is established in Africa, followed by other companies that say they are about to sign contracts there. Estonia has a mutual understanding memorandum in matters digital with the African Union. All of it creates new possibilities for our entrepreneurs, and none of it would exist were we not campaigning in the UN.

Thinking back to Estonia’s EU presidency, it included the African Union and EU Summit. It was extremely important for Estonia to demonstrate to southern partners, for whom Africa’s rapid development and curbing of migration problems is of far greater interest, that Estonia really is concentrating on problems that are far from home.

We were able to demonstrate that. At the same time, it was our Security Council campaign. It has all made Estonia bigger, better-known and more visible.

One must never underestimate the security aspect in visibility for a small country. No one will ever know anything about a cute little crustacean going extinct in the Mariana Trench due to climate change, while the suffering of a widely known animal species sparks reactions all over the world. Visibility is security – we have felt this during our campaign and will again. Irrespective of voting results.

I have been very optimistic so far: should agreements hold, we will have done very well for ourselves in light of the campaign’s goal.

That said, there are some recent examples of agreements not holding. The previous vote saw someone with agreements in place lose in the first round. One can never be sure.

But no one can take away the fact we are known and therefore better protected, that our European allies see Estonia has grown up and can keep up on matters of development and that our entrepreneurs can take advantage of that campaign.

How do these deals work? It seems that when you attended the UN General Assembly, it was like a speed dating session where you only have so much time to charm top politicians of so and so many countries.

That is exactly how it works. The foreign minister and I each had 30 meetings a day. I also gave a speech where I emphasized climate and cyber issues, the chances of small countries in the UN and other things that matter to us. We also attended a few side events where we felt we could boost our visibility further.

I accepted Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ offer to serve as his vice president in a high-level workgroup on health and human rights for children and women. All of those steps lead us toward people realizing Estonia contributes to international discussion.

Of course, it is quite difficult to achieve all of that with a population of one million, 42 embassies and a few dozen people, including the president, her council, MPs, the foreign ministry’s team, foreign minister and the environment minister on climate issues.

Our prime minister pursued a similar agenda at the EU-AU summit last year – he was obligated to host the meeting as PM of the EU presidency, but he was also busy handing out campaign materials.

When I attended the International Organization of La Francophonie meeting, I was there for seven hours on the first day and two hours on the second day – I managed to make around 30 contacts.

I attended the Peace Forum in Paris last Sunday – it sounds like a celebration, but there were 70 heads of state present. That is where I felt for the first time that our circle of friends really has broadened. There were a lot of people who came up to us, if only to ask whether we could help them with matters digital. That is a tangible result.

It is high-pressure work by a small team. I would like to commend Margus Kolga, Daniel Schaer, Sven Jürgenson and everyone else.

If you move through the UN General Assembly building with [ambassador] Sven Jürgenson, you can see that people know him and step up to him to have a word. It is a sign that we have a good representative.

One can tell the difference between courtesy and sincere gratification. We have played our cards right with the resources we have, drawing the line at the fact we cannot afford nor want to organize five-star trips in exchange for votes. We want to show that we are contributing and have business in the Security Council.

You mentioned limited resources. The president’s schedule would be full even without the campaign. Are some things canceled as a result?

Sleep is often canceled. Our budget is very tight. We always fly cheap that is not always comfortable.

But I believe that the foreign ministry and my people involved – Lauri Kuusing, Kristel Lõuk – see it as something we do for Estonia. We are not counting hours and quantifying contributions. Larger countries can afford to do a lot more than we can.

Let us return to Marrakesh. How often have you felt that Estonia wavering (regarding the migration pact – ed.) could impact our reputation?

What is reputation? It’s that Estonia has declared that rules, consistency, being present, contribution form the foundation of our foreign policy. Moving away from that naturally raises questions. I believe there is no one who has not been asked what happened by their European colleagues.

Several Visegrad countries have distanced themselves from the pact. It is a group that stands close to us geographically but has chosen a very specific path. To what extent does that affect our reputation?

As was said toward the beginning: forces that support maintaining Estonia’s recent foreign policy course have the majority in the parliament and government. We have to put our mouth where our money is.

What about the reputation of other Eastern European countries being projected on us?

If one’s actions confirm one’s affiliation with a likeminded group of countries, it is a fact. What is there to project. You either think like Germany, France, Italy or Greece or you don’t. A simple fact.

To take a broader look, what were the highlights for you among this year’s visits or meetings?

That people who think as you do can be found in very different places.

Definitely Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. I specifically went to listen to her speech at the UN General Assembly to support women with small children participating in top politics (Ardern, who became PM last October, gave birth to her first child this summer – ed.). I believe she is a very nice person, and I very much enjoyed meeting her.

But I am trespassing against many others who very much share our concerns by only mentioning her.

How much room is there for personal sympathies in top politics?

A great deal. It is the same in the UN: people need to know and love our ambassador and want him to be the one who gets to stand up triumphant.

What about personal antipathy? Whether against individual people or representatives of countries that are neither democracies nor have rule of law?

I believe we still have to talk even if I’m absolutely convinced that we will not be able to agree on anything.

Is it not difficult?

That is the work of politicians and diplomats.

Just like people in domestic politics know they have differences of opinion but still – calmly, I hope – sit down and discuss them. It is the same on the international level.

The general rule of much ado about nothing applies. The better you are at explaining things, looking for common elements, taking the problem to pieces and isolating items on which you disagree, the better.