Two out of three ain’t bad

Mike Collier
, ajakirjanik, Riia
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Mike Collier.
Mike Collier. Photo: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc

«I wouldn't normally have come, but I'm doing something for Postimees,» I told my journalistic colleagues, trying to sound nonchalant. Yeah, suckers, I'm not writing about this meeting of the three Baltic Prime Ministers for some poky Latvian outlet. I'm covering it for Postimees, a paper that still bothers to print on actual paper. I was feeling very proud.

«Ratas isn't showing up. Neither are the Estonian journalists,» replied my colleagues, adding by way of explanation: «The snow.»

I could barely believe my ears. Juri Ratas had cancelled his awayday because of «The snow.» That an Estonian would be put off by «The snow» is like suggesting a meeting of Arab sheiks might be cancelled because of «The sand.» It's supposed to be their natural habitat.

So that was my planned column completely destroyed. It was going to be an examination of the chemistry – or lack thereof – between the three PMs. Latvia has a new one in Krišjānis Kariņš: very tall, very thin, rather elegant, with a high probability of an extra digit on each foot. One might almost say a typical Latvian, were it not for the fact he happens to have an American passport as well as a Latvian one.

Ratas, being rather round and rumpled, with a preference for off-the peg polyster suits two sizes too small for him, would have made a nice contrast. Making up the trio would have been Saulius Skvernelis, Prime Minister of Lithuania. He has a delightful name. Repeat the words «Saulius Skvernelis» quickly three times and a fairy will appear to grant you a wish. But just as the birds with the most beautiful songs are never the ones with the most beautiful plumage, so short, squat Prime Minister Skvernelis with his wide-set always reminds me of a toad. A friendly and reliable toad, certainly, but an amphibian nevertheless.

In fact Skvernelis delivered the best line at the press conference consisting of himself, Kariņš and Estonian ambassador to Latvia Arti Hilpus, who deputised for the snowbound Ratas.

«Well, if you get a feeling that you shouldn't get on a plane, it's probably best that you don't do so,» said Skvernelis in what may have been a tiny dig at his Estonian counterpart's non-attendance. It conjured up a clear image of Ratas arriving at Lennart Meri Airport and walking towards check-in only to hear a voice inside his head – perhaps of Lennart Meri himself – saying «No Juri! Not today! Doom and disaster awaits if you board the flight to Rīga!»

According to the rules of urban myth, the next thing to happen would be that the plane would disappear in a blizzard, never to be seen again allowing Ratas to regale us all for years with the tale of his mysterious near-miss. But I have checked and all the planes from Tallinn actually arrived safe and sound, though if Ratas was scheduled to be aboard the one that departed at 05:50 it is perhaps not surprising if he heard voices in his head as he may very well have still been asleep.

Nevertheless, as we all know, Lithuanians can be quite quick to take offence and Skernelis' quip may have been a way of reminding everyone that after all, they do have snow in Vilnius, too.

As for the content of the discussions, it can briefly be summarised as «We agree on everything.» On Brexit, on Russia, on the Baltic Assembly retaining some sort of purpose and even on the Rail Baltica project, despite the frequent impression given that each country thinks Rail Baltica would be getting along a lot better if it wasn't for one of the other countries holding things up: so the Lithuanians think it's because the Estonians can't work out their route, the Latvians think it's because the Lithuanians are awarding themselves all the contracts and the Estonians think it's because the Latvians are inefficient and indecisive. All however are agreed that unless they can get their hands on European Union funding pretty swiftly, the whole thing is unlikely to happen.

In the absence of that cash «The Baltic countries might not have enough funding to fully finance Rail Baltic even if we reduce funding for other activities,» said Kariņš in a statement of the blindingly obvious. He also welcomed news that Finland was interested in being part of Rail Baltic, even if the 2 million euros it has earmarked for the project is barely enough to pay for a station toilet.

«Along with the joining of Finland, we also have interest shown by Poland,» responded Skvernelis, in case everyone's attention should become focussed a bit too far north for his liking.

«The Prime Ministers have said the most important things,» added Hilpus with admirable diplomacy. 

So let's hope the EU money is released, the tracks get laid and Rail Baltica arrives on time so that perhaps in ten years' time, the Prime Minsiters of the Baltic States can whizz back and forth between their countries at high speed – snow or no snow.