As Estonia takes the helm, the EU starts to look outwards

The European Union’s rotating presidency is no longer what it used to be. Treaty changes have kept the summits in Brussels and created the permanent EU Council President, the role currently occupied by Donald Tusk. But the switchover every six months is still a staging post, and with Malta handing over the presidency baton to Estonia on July 1, there is a sense that the EU is finally turning a page on one of its grimmest chapters.

 The EU was ailing for a long time. The British referendum vote last year to leave the bloc was the low point, but it capped a rough few years that includes the 2015 migration crisis, the near expulsion of Greece from the euro, the surge in anti-EU politics, and the long economic downturn that started almost a decade ago. As 2017 dawned, there was a fear that populism might sweep across European elections, and that other countries might seek to follow the UK out the EU door.

But it now looks like the worst has passed. The anti-EU and anti-Muslim politicians in the Dutch and French elections failed. New French President Emmanuel Macron is unashamedly pro-European, and is looking to revive the Franco-German motor that has traditionally driven the EU.

US President Trump has done much to spur Europeans – leaders and voters – to think harder about how to look after themselves in a world where Washington’s support cannot be counted on. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went as far as saying that Europe can no longer depend on either Britain or the US in future, and “that we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Mr Trump has already announced he is pulling out of the Paris climate change treaty, despite European entreaties at the G7 summit in Sicily in May. Mrs Merkel says the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7-8 will focus on furthering the aims of the Paris deal, despite the US withdrawal. It will be a test of European leadership to see how much they can maintain the deal’s emissions cutting targets without Mr Trump’s support. The continuing messages of commitment from other countries, as well as key US states, cities and businesses, suggest it might be possible.


Estonia’s fresh start

All this gives the EU reason to take a fresh approach to its priorities, and the Estonian presidency is a moment to take stock. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his commissioners spent the last two days of June in Tallinn in meetings with the Estonian ministers, ahead of the formal launch of the presidency. Prime minister Juri Ratas says he wants to make the digital issues a priority the presidency, and he is well placed to lead the charge: Estonia is probably the most advanced digital society in the world.

Estonia joined the EU in the 2004 enlargement wave, but this is its first presidency (it would have been next year had the UK not skipped its presidency slot in the wake of the Brexit referendum). It is one of the most nimble members of the EU, both politically and economically. Described as a Baltic tiger, Estonia joined the euro in 2011, is prosperous, has by far the lowest ratio of government debt to GDP in the EU countries at 9.5%, and has the third lowest business bribery risk in the world according to TRACE Matrix survey of 199 countries.

Although it is a nation of just 1.3 million, Estonia is a digital pioneer. Estonians were the original developers of Skype, one of Europe’s few modern IT innovations known worldwide. But Estonia’s public push into digital is perhaps more impressive. Its ministers have held paperless meetings since 1999, and official documents can be signed with digital signatures. Almost one in three voted on the internet at the most recent parliament elections in 2015. For just €100 and a photograph, anyone in the world can become an Estonia e-resident, receiving an identity card, a cryptographic key and a PIN code to access its national systems.

Estonia’s digital surge was given a push after the country was subject to ruthless cyber-attacks in 2007. Russians are widely assumed to be behind the assault that knocked down the websites of the parliament, ministries, banks, media groups and other organisations. Since then, Estonia has been at the forefront of cybersecurity initiatives, and now hosts NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.

Not surprisingly, the Estonian EU presidency has around 45 events related to digital topics, including an EU summit devoted to digital affairs in Tallinn on September 29.

Much of the EU presidency is symbolic: it allows the host country to showcase itself, and arrange parts of the agenda to suit its needs. But Estonia is particularly well suited to the task. No EU country is more at ease with the modern world and with globalisation. As the EU finally lifts its head from its internal wrangles, Estonia can help helm a path towards a more outward looking, enterprising and inspiring Europe.

Authors:  Karen Massin and Leo Cendrowicz
image: shuttersktock

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