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date: 07 December 2019

Estonia and the European Union

Summary and Keywords

Enlargement has been one of the European Union’s (EU) most successful foreign policies, but it has its limits: the EU cannot expand endlessly. The Treaty on European Union stipulates that any European country may apply for membership if the state respects and follows the EU’s democratic values and meets all the membership criteria. The timely process can be shown by the example of Estonia. Estonia applied for membership in 1995 and became a member in 2004. Estonia had been occupied by the Soviet Union for a long time and, due to that, the skepticism of joining a new union arose when the membership talks started. Estonia has gone through a very interesting historical period from regaining its independence, its path to the EU membership, eventual EU membership, and the country’s EU presidency in the second half of 2017. In the 1990s, the integration into the EU was accepted by many Estonians as a touchstone of belonging to the free world, a status as that would help to consolidate freedom and boost the economy. The harmonization of Estonian economic, legal, political and social system into the EU framework was a difficult and not a problem-free process. There were several heated discussions related to the sovereignty and constitutional independence the accession turned out to be possible. The majority of Estonians still supports the EU membership. After joining EU, Estonians feel more secure, granted with freedom, and well-being. According to a Eurobarometer survey, citizens feel the biggest benefits in the area of free movement of persons, goods, and services. Estonia has also significantly contributed to the structures of the EU. However, the growth of Euro-skepticism can be also detected recently in Estonia with growing popularity of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, a member of a government coalition established after the parliamentary elections of 2019.

Enlargement has been one of the European Union’s (EU) most successful foreign policies, but it has its limits: the EU cannot expand endlessly. The Treaty on European Union stipulates that any European country may apply for membership if the state respects and follows the EU’s democratic values and meets all the membership criteria. The timely process can be shown by the example of Estonia. Estonia applied for membership in 1995 and became a member in 2004. Estonia had been occupied by the Soviet Union for a long time and, due to that, the skepticism of joining a new union arose when the membership talks started. Estonia has gone through a very interesting historical period from regaining its independence, its path to the EU membership, eventual EU membership, and the country’s EU presidency in the second half of 2017. In the 1990s, the integration into the EU was accepted by many Estonians as a touchstone of belonging to the free world, a status as that would help to consolidate freedom and boost the economy. The harmonization of Estonian economic, legal, political and social system into the EU frameworkwas a difficult and not a problem-free process. There were several heated discussions related to the sovereignty and constitutional independence the accession turned out to be possible. The majority of Estonians still supports the EU membership. After joining EU, Estonians feel more secure, granted with freedom, and well-being According to a Eurobarometer survey, citizens feel the biggest benefits in the area of free movement of persons, goods, and services. . Estonia has also significantly contributed to the structures of the EU. However, the growth of Euro-skepticism can be also detected recently in Estonia with growing popularity of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, a member of a government coalition established after the parliamentary elections of 2019.

Keywords: Estonia, transition, European Union, European Union politics, EU Council presidency, Estonian political parties

Estonia Before the European Union

After restoring its independence on August 20, 1991, Estonia became a democratic political regime based on a unicameral parliamentary power and the country started to restore its broken ties with Europe. Just a week later, on August 27, 1991, diplomatic relations between Estonia and the European Communities were established. From the very beginning, Estonia aimed to cut the influence of the former Soviet Union, which some months later was dissolved. Integration into the European institutions became a priority for the Republic of Estonia. Besides its security concerns, the enhanced cooperation with the members of the European Communities has been taken by the Estonian policymakers as the most credible way to overcome the economic and social shortcomings the country faced after breaking off ties with the Soviet Union.

In January 1992, a transition government led by Tiit Vähi came to power and set three major goals for the reborn republic: currency reform, the adoption of a new constitution, and the organization of the first postwar democratic elections in the fall of 1992 (Laar, 2009). At the same time, the relations with the European Communities were further developed. Estonia was included into the PHARE aid program for the economic restructuring of central and eastern Europe. In May 1992, Estonia signed an Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation with the European Communities, which came into force in February 1993. This treaty established goals of further integration and the signing of an association agreement, among others, set up a mechanism for political dialogue, as well as included an obligation to protect human rights and the rights of ethnic minorities in Estonia (Kull, 2009). Approximately at the same time the European integration got a boost with the Maastricht Treaty signed by 12 member-states on February 7, 1992, and the new political institution, the European Union (EU), was established by that act.

Estonia was a frontrunner among the eastern European countries in conducting its currency reform, which laid a foundation for further economic reforms. Its currency, the kroon, was pegged to the German currency at a rate of 8 Krooni = 1 Deutsche Mark, which stabilized Estonia’s monetary system. Since 2002, the kroon was pegged to the euro. At the same time, a comprehensive privatization program was initiated. In the fall of 1992, Estonia decisively turned toward strong European integration, after the Pro Patria Union, led by Mart Laar, won the parliamentary elections and Lennart Meri was elected president of the Republic of Estonia. The reorientation of the Estonian economy turned out to be of decisive importance. At the beginning of 1992, more than 90% of Estonia’s trade was still conducted with Russia and the former Soviet Union. The new government started with radical reforms. Tax reform based on the transition to a single-rate flat income tax has to a certain extent become an international trademark for Estonia, which has often been presented as a sample of a success story of a small eastern European country in economic reforms. Estonia’s gross national product based on purchasing power parity has increased faster than that of any other transition country (Laar, 2009).

First Steps Toward Integration

The Maastricht Treaty came into force on January 1, 1993. Throughout the 1990s, it was a priority political goal for Estonia to be recognized by the EU as a country that follows the generally recognized principles of Western liberal democracy and is able to conduct economic and social reforms expected from eastern European countries that pursued membership in the EU. The EU Copenhagen Summit in June 1993 decided to conclude free trade agreements with three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In the same year, first talks started with eastern European countries concerning their possible accession to the EU. Initially, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were among frontrunners, and, at the beginning of May 1993, the Commission presented the member states with a document on the future of the EU enlargement containing no references to either the Baltic countries or Slovenia. Estonia was increasingly concerned about the “bloc approach.” The latter meant that the applicants were divided into three categories: the European Free Trade Association states, the associated central and eastern European countries, and the former Soviet Union states, and the latter will be excluded from the accession process (Kull, 2009). In Estonia, a governmental working group was created on December 7, 1993, to analyze the possible consequences of Estonia joining the EU. Various parliamentary factions and ministries, as well as other governmental institutions and scientific circles, were represented in the working group.

Negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement between Estonia and the EU started on February 23, 1994, and ended on July 18 of the same year. During the negotiations, the main problems were concentrated on two sensitive areas of the EU trade policy—agriculture and textiles. In reaching an agreement, the political argument that the Russian market was practically closed to Estonia due to double customs tariffs applied by Russia became decisive (Kull, 2009). The agreement entered into force on January 1, 1995. On June 12, 1995, Estonia, together with Latvia and Lithuania, signed the association agreement with the EU. In the same year, on November 28, Estonia officially applied for membership status at the EU. The application was signed by the prime minister of Estonia, Tiit Vähi.

In the 1990s, the integration into the EU was accepted by many Estonians as a touchstone of belonging to the free world, a status that would help consolidate freedom and boost the economy. This move excited officials, politicians, and voters alike and encouraged them to make an effort (Samost, 2014). After independence was restored, the relationship with the Russian Federation deteriorated and Estonia’s security concerns regarding several risks and threats coming from Russia increased. The further integration with European structures also had a security dimension. While Estonia started to cooperate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and launched several regional security initiatives, the potential membership of the EU has been more and more taken as an additional security guarantee for the country, supported by the fact that NATO membership during the first decade of 1990s seemed out of reach (Mölder, 2018).

Becoming a Member State

On December 13,1997, the EU opened negotiations with six countries from central and eastern Europe—Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus—for their accession to the organization. The negotiations between the EU and Estonia ended after five years on December 13, 2002. It is worthwhile to mention that at this time Estonia was the only Baltic state and former republic of the Soviet Union that was included to the accession negotiations. The accession agreement between Estonia and the EU was signed on April 16, 2003, and was followed by the referendum on the EU accession held in September 2003, in which 66.92% of voters supported the accession to the EU. Most major political parties in Estonia supported the European integration process. President Arnold Rüütel, a Soviet-era communist leader who was elected to the presidential office after Lennart Meri and afterwards joined the Conservative People’s Party, campaigned for the “Yes” vote (Tambur, 2017). Only the influential Centre Party, led by Edgar Savisaar and very popular among the Russian minority, did not take a firm position in these matters. On May 1, 2004, Estonia officially joined the EU and the treaty was signed by President Arnold Rüütel and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kristiina Ojuland.

The harmonization of Estonian law with EU law was a difficult process. Amendment of the constitution involved roundtables with lawyers and other experts. Several discussions about the sovereignty and constitutional independence related to the main legal act made accession possible. At the referendum on September 14, 2003, the Estonian people, according to §162 of the constitution, adopted the following law to amend the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia:

  1. §1. Estonia may belong to the European Union in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia.

  2. §2. As of Estonia’s accession to the European Union, the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia applies taking account of the rights and obligations arising from the Accession Treaty.

  3. §3. This Act may be amended only by a referendum.

  4. §4. This Act enters into force three months after the date of proclamation.

Clearly, the proposed Amendment Act was a result of a compromise solution by which the text of the constitution was not amended directly. As the constitution itself does not list expressis verbis fundamental principles, it can be presumed that referred principles are contained in the preamble of the constitution and in chapter 1 of the general provisions. However, it can also be assumed that the clause was added with the clear purpose to protect the independence of the Estonian Constitution as a legal instrument protecting the national interests. The initiator of the clause, Chancellor of Justice of Estonian Republic Allar Jõks, has stated that the Amendment Act “certainly does not confirm supremacy of EU law in an “ultimate form”” and that “a so-called crisis clause was entered . . . according to which Estonia sets a precondition to supremacy of European law.” Through the debates about accession to the EU and conditions regarding the membership, the Estonian legal society reached a certain maturity. However, the Amendment Act to the constitution could not have taken into account the dynamic nature of the EU.

During the same period, the increasing trend of Euroskepticism also started to show up in Estonian society. One third of the population was skeptical about joining the EU. These people argued that Estonia should not go straight from one union, the Soviet Union, into another one, the EU, and feared the loss of sovereignty soon after regaining independence. Doubts were raised about whether a small country like Estonia would be able to influence EU matters (Mikkel & Pridham, 2004). However, in these years, Estonia had no strong Euroskeptic political party that could take a lead in organizing opposition to joining the EU. The first openly Euro-critical parliamentary party, the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), emerged in 2012 on the basis of an agrarian People’s Union of Estonia. They are ideologically close to such far-right extreme nationalist movements in Europe like the National Front (France), the U.K. Independence Party, or Alternative for Germany, and they received 7 seats (8.1% of votes) in the Estonian Parliament Riigikogu in the elections held in 2015 and 19 seats (17.8% of votes) in the elections of 2019; after that they joined the second cabinet of Jüri Ratas with five cabinet positions. In the European Parliament elections in 2019, EKRE gained 12.1% of the votes and there was one mandate.

Positioning Supremacy of the EU Law

On January 25, 2006, the Riigikogu passed a resolution to request the opinion of the Supreme Court on the interpretation of §111 of the constitution in conjunction with the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia Amendment Act and EU law. The Chancellor of Justice considered that the situation wherein the grammatical provision of the constitution and the actual substance thereof have grown apart was a regrettable one. According to him, the best solution for ensuring the applicability of the constitution “would be a Constitution wherein the amendments arising from the Accession Treaty and following from the transposition of European Union law were introduced.” On the contrary, the Minister of Justice was convinced that “only a grammatical (formal) conflict is possible.” However, it is mentioned by the minister that the national provision not compatible with EU law should remain in force.

The opinion of the Supreme Court attempts to clarify the position of the Amendment Act adopted by a referendum of September 14, 2003. The Court states that:

the text of the Constitution must always be read with the amendments and only that part of the constitutional text shall be applied which is not in conflict with the amendments. Thus, the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia must be read together with the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia Amendment Act, applying only the part of the Constitution that is not amended.

The scope of legal status of the constitution as independent legal text remained unclear. This is further explained by the Court:

To find out which part of the Constitution is applicable, it has to be interpreted in conjunction with the European Union law, which became binding for Estonia through the Accession Treaty. At that, only that part of the Constitution is applicable, which is in conformity with the European Union law or which regulates the relationships that are not regulated by the European Union law. The effect of those provisions of the Constitution that are not compatible with the European Union law and thus inapplicable, is suspended. This means that within the spheres, which are within the exclusive competence of the European Union or where there is a shared competence with the European Union, the European Union law shall apply in the case of a conflict between Estonian legislation, including the Constitution, with the European Union law.

There were two dissenting opinions supplemented to the opinion of the Supreme Court. First, the dissenting opinion of Justice Villu Kõve argues that the legal effect of the opinion is doubtful because the constitutional review mechanism is established by the constitution itself. In the second dissenting opinion, Justice Eerik Kergandberg agrees with the previously mentioned dissenting opinion concerning the non-use of the “defense clause,” stating that “it is regrettable that the opinion of the Supreme Court contains no explanation as to why it has not considered necessary to include the provisions of §1 of Amendment Act into the analysis of constitutionality.”

Laffranque, one of the judges who contributed to the aforementioned majority opinion, justifies the opinion afterwards: “the Estonian Supreme Court finally clarified the meaning of the Amendment Act of the Constitution, rightly stating that the Estonian Constitution must be read together with the Amendment Act of the Constitution, applying only those parts of the Constitution that were not amended by the Amendment Act.”

After Becoming a Member State

After joining the EU, Estonia developed rapidly as a country and also experienced major economic success. According to The Economist (2014), Estonia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per person as of 2014 had increased 30% since the accession. By 2020, the EU will have supported Estonia with approximately 11 billion euros, while Estonia has contributed less than 2 billion euros back to the EU budget (Tambur, 2017). The EU accession had a remarkable impact on the trade accounts of Estonia. The EU’s share is 74% of Estonia’s export (Sweden 18%, Finland 16%, Latvia 9%, before the biggest non-EU partner Russia 7%) and 82% of Estonia’s import (Finland 13%, Germany 11%, Lithuania 9%). Before joining the EU, Estonia exported a large amount of meat and fish products. Its share in total exports of agricultural and food products were 28% in 1996, but by 2013 this share had decreased to 5%. Before joining the EU, export of agricultural and food products went mainly to the Netherlands and Germany, but afterwards the share of neighboring markets, Lithuania and Finland, grew. For comparison, the share of Russia in the export of agricultural products was 44% in 1994, decreased to 4% in 2004, and increased to 19% in 2013 (Statistics Estonia, 2017).

Another important step in the EU integration was achieved by Estonia on January 1, 2011, after Estonia joined the Eurozone following the decisions made by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and European Parliament in 2010, which stated that Estonia clearly met the criteria for adopting the Euro currency. Estonia joined the Eurozone in difficult times, while the currency had come vulnerable in financial markets because of the impact by Greece’s budget crisis. This achievement was a result of macroeconomic stability and fiscal prudence practiced by all Estonian governments since 1992 (Feldmann, 2013). Estonia enjoyed an investment boom following the EU accession, but in 2008 the global financial crisis badly hit its economy; its GDP dropped 15% in 2009. The government of Estonia adopted strict austerity measures for rebounding from the crisis and preparing to join the Eurozone, which brought remarkable cuts in state spending and pushed unemployment to more than 16%. The budgetary deficit was just 1.7% of GDP and government debt stood at 7.2% of GDP in the same year, which remained within the acceptable limits set by the Maastricht Treaty (respectively 3% and 60%). Joining the Eurozone had a positive effect on the Estonia macroeconomic situation, increased trust in the Estonian economy, helped to attract new investments to Estonia, and created new jobs (Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2014).

The EU was expected to become an essential energy security guarantee for Estonia, which wished to reduce its dependence on Russia’s energy market. In order to increase the energy security of the Baltic region, the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan, approved by the European Commission and the eight member states located along the Baltic Sea in June 2009, became one of the most important milestones for Estonia to establish new energy connections and develop a common Nordic-Baltic energy market. The Estlink 2 cable connection between Estonia and Finland was opened in February 2014 (Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan, 2012). The first step in creating a joint Nordic-Baltic energy market was the launching of the Nordic electricity exchange NordPoolSpot to Estonia on April 1, 2010. Estonia and Finland reached an agreement to build the “Baltic connector” gas pipeline by 2019 and terminal by 2020, which have been added to the list of the EU projects of common interest. The latter refers to likely financial support from the EU’s financial program Connecting Europe Facility.

At the end of 2007, Estonia joined the Schengen agreement, by which 26 EU nations agreed on free and unrestricted movement of people, goods, services, and capital, in harmony with common rules for controlling external borders and fighting criminality by strengthening common judicial systems and police cooperation (Schengen Visa Info, 2019).

Becoming a member has greatly benefitted Estonians. According to a Eurobarometer survey, citizens feel the most benefits within the area of free movement of persons, goods, and services. According to an article published by Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2014) for the 10th anniversary of being in the EU, Estonians feel security, more freedom, and better well-being. But Estonia has also significantly contributed to the structures of the EU. For the period of 2014 to 2019, the Commissioner for Digital Single Market was former Prime Minister (2005–2014) of Estonia Andrus Ansip. Before him, the position of European Commissioner was designated to Siim Kallas, former Prime Minister (2002–2003) and Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs (from May to November 2004), for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud (2004–2010), and for Transport (2010–2014). Both of them, Siim Kallas from 2004 to 2010 and Andrus Ansip from 2014 to 2019, have been vice presidents of the European Commission. Since 2004, Estonia has participated in four elections of the European Parliament. During the last elections on the May 26, 2019, 37.6% of eligible voters went to vote in elections and elected six deputies who represent Estonia in the European Parliament. The Reform Party (which belongs to Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe [ALDE]) and Social Democratic Party both won two seats, while the Centre Party (ALDE) and EKRE each won one seat.

Common Foreign and Security Policy

What concerns the European Common Foreign and Security Policy is that Estonia mostly represented the transatlantic wing of the EU with the United Kingdom, Denmark, Poland, and other eastern European countries, which aimed to strengthen its ties with the United States and supported its hegemonic goals as the leader of Western liberal democracies. The gap between the transatlantic wing and the Eurocentric wing of the EU for the first time appeared after the Iraqi intervention of 2003, which was strongly opposed by France, Germany, Belgium, and later Spain under the Socialist government. Estonia as the most part of eastern European countries supported the intervention led by the United States and the United Kingdom (Mölder, 2011). At the same time, Estonia has sometimes been more open to joint positions of the EU compared to other eastern European states. For example, Estonia was among just a few eastern European countries that voted against the decision of the Trump administration to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the General Assembly of United Nations, following the joint position agreed to in the EU. Many Estonian diplomats have represented the EU internationally. Tiina Intelman was the first Estonian diplomat to lead EU diplomatic missions from 2014 to 2017 in Liberia. As of 2019, Estonian diplomats are leading EU diplomatic missions in Montenegro, South African Republic, and Ukraine.

Estonia supports the European Neighbourhood Policy; however, in the future, there may appear a need for deeper differentiation that would recognize the ambition and profile of the countries based on the mutual interests, the values important for the EU, as well as the certain conditionality that forms the basis of the “more for more” principle. The sense of ownership of the partners and the visibility of the EU should be increased with mobility becoming one of the key areas together with trade and energy. Concerning the Eastern Partnership, Estonia considers it important to develop the initiative further in accordance with the objectives formulated in the Joint Declaration of the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit of 2017 and to continue the development of bilateral relations while focusing on enhanced political association and economic integration between the EU and the eastern partner countries: Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus (Mardisalu-Kahar, 2013).

Estonia’s National Security Strategy (2010) states that “the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is an essential factor alongside NATO’s collective defence that contributes to Estonia’s security.” Therefore, Estonia is actively contributing to enhancing EU’s security capabilities. The cornerstone of EU’s security and defense commitments relies on the Treaty of Lisbon, by which the EU member states commit to assisting each other with all resources available in the case of an attack that is similar to the commitments NATO made by its Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Cyber security has been one of the priorities, and Estonia has internationally pioneered in various security frameworks. Since 2012, Estonia has hosted the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security, and justice (eu-LISA). The agency describes itself as “one of the enablers of an integrated response to existing and emerging threats to European security” (eu-LISA, 2017). On September 7, 2017, Estonia held the first strategic-level table-top exercise, EU CYBRID 2017, in Tallinn, the object of which was to test how the aftermath of a cyber-attack was handled. On July 16, 2019, Estonian Juhan Lepassaar was elected to be the new executive director of the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (2019).

Within the CSDP framework, Estonia has prioritized two specific fields of cooperation: the European Defense Agency and the battle groups (Uibo, 2017). Since 2008, Estonia has regularly participated in the EU’s Nordic Battlegroup, which is a small, 2,400-troop rapid reaction force, together with Finland, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Estonia was among 10 EU nations to join the European Intervention Initiative, which is a joint military project outside of NATO and the EU framework of 10 EU nations to develop a mutually shared strategic culture by focusing on enhanced interactions on intelligence sharing, scenario planning, support operations, and doctrine. In 2017, 25 EU nations including Estonia launched the Permanent Structured Cooperation mechanism, which unites their national armed forces under joint command in order to pursue further structural integration.

Estonia has contributed to several EU crisis response missions. Already in 2003, the first representative of the Estonian Defense Forces was included in the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) Concordia in FYR Macedonia. From 2005 to 2011, the Estonian contingent participated in the EUFOR/Althea mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From 2010 to 2013, the Estonian ship protection team contributed to the EUNAVFOR/Atalanta antipiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. In 2014, the Estonian contingent participated in the European Union Force mission in the Central African Republic. By 2019, Estonia had contributed with militaries to the EUTM Mali mission (since 2013) and to the EUNAVFOR MED mission in the Mediterranean Sea (since 2015). Estonian police and border guard experts participated in EU’s civil missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003–2011) and Moldova (2005–2011). Currently Estonian experts are involved in the Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine), Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM Georgia) and Police Support Mission in Palestine (EUPOL COPPS). Even though a small country with limited resources, Estonia has highly estimated the value of cooperative security and actively contributed to EU’s civil and military crisis response missions.

Sugar Case and Other EU Law Centered Court Cases

One of the first conflicts that Estonia had with EU policies happened not so long after the state became member of the club. After joining the EU in 2004, Estonia had to pay a so-called fine for excessive stocks of various products. The debate over the excessive stocks of sugar emerged due to the suspicion whether the European Commission had fulfilled its obligation to ensure that necessary legislation would be published in Estonian in the Official Journal of the EU on the day of Estonia’s accession to the EU (Vahtla, 2018). Estonia brought the action in on March 4, 2015, and received case number 2006/776/EC. The applicant was the Republic of Estonia, which was represented by Kristi Kraavi-Käerdi, and the defendant was the European Commission. Estonia pleaded to be granted the annulment of the decision “contained in the European Commission’s letter of 22 December 2014 (Ares(2014)4324235) declining to amend European Commission Decision 2006/776/EC (2006, p. 35) on the amounts to be charged for the quantities of surplus sugar not eliminated.” Furthermore, Estonia appealed against paying the costs, asking for the commission to pay. In 2017 the European Court of Justice dismissed Estonian action to recoup from the EU the 34.3 million Euros as penalty for excessive stocks of sugar. The court decided that Estonia still had to pay for its own and the European Commission’s legal expenses, finding against Estonia’s interest that “the contested act was essentially a statement of opinion and the second of which was that Estonia did not submit new circumstances necessitating a review of the case.” The 2017 dismissal was followed by the decision of dismissal on November 15, 2018, which was filed in June 2017.

In general, European law and policies were applied without major disputes. From 2004 to 2010, there have been numerous cases where applicants referred to the EU law. Some exceptions here (in addition to the aforementioned Sugar case) are series of cases: besides surplus stock (sugar case), structural funds, residence permit, and pension rights cases have intensively engaged with the supranational character of EU law. After 2010, the parties and the courts engaged with EU law in more detail, referring to EU law and case law of the Court of Justice (Kerikmäe, Evas, & Popov, 2017, p. 29).

Political Parties in Estonia

Estonia has a multiparty system where parties usually need to form coalition governments together. After the parliamentary elections of March 2019, Estonia had five major parties in Riigikogu of which the Centre Party (25 seats), the EKRE (19 seats), and Pro Patria (12 seats) are the members of government coalition and the Reform Party (34 seats) and the Social Democratic Party (10 seats) belong to the opposition. The independent politician Raimond Kaljulaid, who left the Centre Party after the formation of coalition with EKRE by his former party, holds the remaining one seat. Before the 2019 elections, the pollster Turu-uuringute AS gathered the data from a survey conducted by daily Päevaleht and the results showed that Estonian voters wanted to have a coalition of the governing Centre and opposition liberal right-wing Reform parties (Cavegn, 2019). The third place of popularity was in the hands of the EKRE (Kook, 2019). The Centre Party and the Reform Party belong to ALDE in the European Parliament, yet their members have different opinions and beliefs on the problems that Estonia is facing, like migration, how to integrate Russian speakers, who lives in Estonia, and family values. It is worth mentioning that during the time of EU presidency in Estonia, the Centre Party became the leader of the government coalition and positioned iself within the broad national consensus on foreign and security policy (Raik, 2018).

EKRE is a Euroskeptic, nationalist, and conservative political party. Its chairman since 2013 has been Mart Helme, a former Estonian ambassador to Russia and, as of 2019, Minister of Interior. EKRE is calling itself an extremely patriotic party, which is protecting Estonian national values and interests, lowering emigration of Estonians, preventing immigration from outside of the EU, and wishing to implement the Swiss-style of direct democracy. The party does not pressure Estonia to leave the EU, but it is against granting more power to the EU, believing it will decrease Estonia’s sovereignty and independence. The party believes that European integration has gone too far, and that the EU should not become a federation. It plans to cooperate with European institutions, as long as the EU does not compromise Estonia’s sovereignty, yet after Brexit it also called for its referendum (Raik, 2018). The party has publicly accused the Estonian government of trying to be liked by the founding members of the EU instead of acting in the interests of Estonia. What EKRE does not believe in is the need for further European integration. Members fear that Estonia will lose its sovereignty due to EU becoming a “‘superstate’ that destroys ‘nation-states’” (Kasekamp, 2019). Some think the ongoing refugee crisis is linked to growth of the popularity of EKRE.

Raik (2018) stated that EKRE is a party that one can describe in short with words like “nationalist, xenophobic, anti-liberal and Euroskeptic.” In 2013, a prominent EKRE member and the Minister of Finance, as of 2019, Martin Helme (the chairman’s son) said that “if you are black, go back,” almost making it their slogan, adding that a massive influx of immigrants would lead to the “pillaging and raping” of Estonian towns. He also said that Estonia should not allow things to go as far as in England, France, and Sweden. This was said after the riots and ethnic conflicts in Sweden (ERR News, 2013).

The political party that is a far-right party but does not have any parliamentary representation in Riigikogu is the Estonian Independence Party (EIP), whose main concern is Estonia being in the EU. The party believes that the EU has colonized Estonia. EIP even took part in the movement against Estonia joining the EU. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, it was seen that the party’s ideas do not go together with the citizens of Estonia, as it had 1,274 votes, making the vote percentage 0.2% of the total. Yet, it is worth mentioning that in the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, the EIP received 4,158 votes, making the total percentage 1.3% (National Electoral Committee, 2014). After 2015 it did not appear in elections anymore. The party did not participate in 2019 parliamentary elections.

Presidency of the Council of the European Union

It is important to mention that from June to December 2017, Estonia held the presidency of the Council of the EU. During the presidency, Estonia was responsible for defining the Council’s positions, considering the interests of all member states, and at the same time remaining neutral. The Estonian presidency became a real challenge to the country after the United Kingdom left after the Brexit referendum, and Estonia took a step further a half a year before the initially planned period. It was predicted that, as a president, Estonia had to deal with issues like Nord Stream 2, negotiations about Brexit, the migration crisis, and finding solutions for the asylum seekers coming to Europe (Tamkin, 2017). In June 2017 Deputy Minister for EU Affairs Matti Maasikas at the Conference of Committee Chairs listed the top priorities of the Estonian presidency, which in his words were “an open and innovative European economy, a safe and secure Europe, a digital Europe and free movement of data, as well as an inclusive and sustainable Europe” (Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017). All of these points were followed, and the official home page for the presidency analyzes these points and what was done more deeply (Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 2017). The Estonian presidency can be characterized by its emphasis on digital issues, including the notable advancement of the Digital Single Market Strategy, as well as for efforts to debate larger digitalization issues during the Tallinn Digital Summit, which brought together 27 EU heads of state or government as well as the presidents of the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament on September 29, 2017.

With an open and innovative European economy, which means developing a business environment that supports knowledge-based growth and competitiveness, Estonia wanted to focus on protecting and promoting the EU’s four freedoms—free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital—making sure that providing services and starting a business in the EU is as easy as possible and advancing trade negotiations, creating new funding opportunities for companies, and ensuring a stable banking sector, as well as establishing a stable and well-functioning electricity market, empowering consumers, and ensuring fair competition by preventing tax evasion. During the presidency under the guidance of Estonia, the creation of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was agreed upon. The main idea was to enhance the efficiency of prosecuting and trying the offenses and value-added tax fraud against the Union’s financial interests.

POLITICO (2017) published an article analyzing and grading Estonia’s presidency, where it took every department and brought out what was achieved and what was not. Overall, the areas that were analyzed received an average of 7 to 9 grades. The lowest score was given in the health department, where POLITICO found that Estonia did not achieve anything, especially not convincing the European Commission to propose a new strategy at a European level for fighting harmful alcohol consumption. The highest grades were given in the energy, employment and social policy, and climate and environment departments. In the energy department Estonia succeeded in getting the agreement on the Council’s united position in the talks with the Parliament about the four legislative proposals. These four proposals are aimed for the EU to take a step closer to greener energy. What surprised the authors was the fact that Estonia got the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. The next time Estonia is likely to hold the presidency of the Council of the EU again will be in 2031.

Conclusion

It should be admitted that Estonia successfully entered to the EU and proved it as a capable member of the institution, which actively contributed to the comprehensive set of initiatives of the EU. Estonia has been a leader in many fields promoted by the EU by which it was able to build an image of success story of eastern European nations in their integration into the Western structures. At the first glance, Estonia is a digitally advanced country with a multiple e-services offered to its residents. A strong basis for successful integration was produced in the 1990s with the development of free market structures and democratization of political life. However, the rapid development was often accompanied by reverse waves, which has left a trace on Estonian society. The rise of populism throughout Europe has also reached Estonia by the late 2010s, and it is seen by the growing popularity of the EKRE party. The complicated relationship with the Russian Federation has made Estonia one of the most securitized nations in Europe, which lives with constant security concerns, is very open to the spread of a culture of fear, and may become a specific target in the progressing status conflict between Russia and the West. These concerns can be easily used in the ongoing information warfare for increasing mistrust against the EU and destabilizing the sustainability of the Estonian society.

In conclusion, Estonia has come a long way since becoming a member of the EU—in a positive way. This can be proven by the successful EU presidency in the second half of 2017. Estonia is contributing to the EU, and the benefits coming from the EU have made life for Estonians safer than it has ever been. Even though concerns about Euroskepticism and far-right parties rising are clearly there, still without the EU Estonia would not have become as evolved as it is right now.

For the further reading on the matter, please see the Further Reading section.

Table 1. Chronology of Important Events

Date

Event

August 20, 1991

Estonia regains independence

August 27, 1991

First diplomatic relations established between Estonia and the European Communities

May 11, 1992

Estonia signs an Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation with the European Communities

June 20, 1992

Estonian Kroon is reintroduced as official currency

June 12, 1995

Estonia signs the Association Agreement with the EU

November 28, 1995

Estonia officially applies for the EU membership

December 13, 1997

The EU opens negotiations with Estonia on its accession to the organisation

April 16, 2003

The accession agreement is signed between Estonia and the EU

September 14, 2003

Estonia approves joining the EU in a referendum

March 29, 2004

Estonia joins the NATO

May 1, 2004

Estonia joins the EU

June 13, 2004

The first European Parliament elections in Estonia

December 21, 2007

Estonia joins Schengen Agreement

January 1, 2011

Estonia joins Eurozone

July 1–December 31, 2017

Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Further Reading

Estonia’s way into the European Union. (2009). Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Find this resource:

Feldmann, M. (2013). From the ruble zone to the euro zone: The political economy of Estonian macroeconomic policy. Post-Soviet Affairs, 29(4), 354–370.Find this resource:

Kasekamp, A. (2010). A history of the Baltic states. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Kerikmäe, T., & Nyman-Metcalf, K. (2010). Karlsruhe v. Lisbon: An overture to a constitutional dialogue from an Estonian perspective. European Journal of Law Reform, 12(3–4), 373–387.Find this resource:

Kerikmäe, T., Joamets, K., Pleps, J., Rodiņa, A., Berkmanas, T., & Gruodytė, E. (Eds.). (2017). The law of the Baltic states. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Verlag.Find this resource:

Kerikmäe, T. (2009). Estonia in the European Legal System: Protection of the Rule of Law Through Constitutional Dialogue. Tallinn University.Find this resource:

Lust, A. (2014). Worstward ho: Explaining Estonian Euroskepticism. Problems of Post-Communism, 53(5), 15–27.Find this resource:

Pettai, V. (2015). Transitional and retrospective justice in the Baltic states. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Raudla, R. (2011). Fiscal retrenchment in Estonia during the financial crisis: The role of institutional factors. Public Administration, 91(1), 32–50.Find this resource:

Veebel, V. (2018). E-democracy in the European Union: Lessons from Estonia. Baltic Bulletin.Find this resource:

References

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Cavegn, D. (2019, February 4). Survey: Centre-Reform coalition first preference of Estonian voters. ERR News.Find this resource:

ERR News. (2013, May 29). Conservative politician: If you’re Black, go back.Find this resource:

Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. (2017). Summary of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Tallinn, Estonia: Author.Find this resource:

European Union Agency for Cybersecurity. (2019). Press release: ENISA Management Board selects new executive director. Athens, Greece: Author.Find this resource:

Feldmann, M. (2013). From the ruble zone to the euro zone: The political economy of Estonian macroeconomic policy. Post-Soviet Affairs, 29(4), 354–370.Find this resource:

Kasekamp, A. (2019). Discursive opportunities for the Estonian Populist radical right in a digital society. Problems of Post-Communism, 66(1), 47–58.Find this resource:

Kerikmäe, T., Evas, T., & Popov, A. (2017). The impact and position of international and EU law. In T. Kerikmäe, K. Joamets, J. Pleps, A. Rodiņa, T. Berkmanas, & E. Gruodytė (Eds.), The law of the Baltic states (pp. 17–25). Cham, Switzerland: Springer Verlag.Find this resource:

Kook, U. (2019, January 30). Keskerakond juhib, kuid Reformierakond vähendas vahet. ERR News.Find this resource:

Kull, C. (2009). Relations between Estonia and the European Union in the period leading up to the invitation to accession negotiations in 1997. In K. Rannu (Ed.), Estonia’s way into the European Union (pp. 16–22). Tallinn, Estonia: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Find this resource:

Laar, M. (2009). Estonia’s New Beginning. In K. Rannu (Ed.), Estonia’s way into the European Union (pp. 8–15). Tallinn, Estonia: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Find this resource:

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Mölder, H. (2018). Competing narratives at the start of Estonia’s security-building process in 1991–1994. In K. Piirimäe & O. Mertelsmann (Eds.), The end of the Cold War and the Baltic states (pp. 317–352). Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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POLITICO. (2017, December 20). Estonia’s presidency: How it went.Find this resource:

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Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2014). Estonia—10 years in the European Union. Tallinn, Estonia: Author.Find this resource:

Republic of Estonia Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2017). Deputy minister for EU Affairs Matti Maasikas at the Conference of Committee Chairs—The priorities of Estonian presidency. Tallinn, Estonia: Author.Find this resource:

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