Dear Riigikogu, honourable ambassadors,
In August, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the restoration of Estonian national independence, one of the supporting pillars of which was the aim ‘to be a worthy member within the family of civilised nations’. This step allowed us to be part of the common goal of ensuring peace, security, and welfare in Europe, among other things. It is true that without our independence, we would not have this opportunity and choice – the opportunity and choice of making Estonia bigger and not being alone or being left on our own. It is also true that independence alone does not ensure this opportunity or invitation – the place at the table was won in the first decade of our independence by shedding sweat and tears, just like our statehood before it.
Trust and reputation – which are our strongest currency – are won over years, can be lost in seconds, and take an eternity to restore. Professor Martin Ehala has rightly claimed that solidarity cannot exist without shared core values. I quote: “trust, coherence, and solidarity depend on the faith of the members that other people around them share the same values”. If Estonia is not coherent, is not reliable, is not predictable, it can no longer be part of ‘us’ or a part of the West and will eventually also no longer be defensible through these core values. Sovereignty cannot exist in a vacuum, but in relationships between ourselves and with others, and it means, above all, responsibility for the future of Estonia as well as of Europe.
Thus, I would like to use the words of the new head of the European Union Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu, who said that it is appropriate to talk about ‘connected sovereignty’. This means our sovereignty which is connected to the sovereignty of our friends and allies, not with those who have a hostile attitude towards our world. This means connected sovereignty which also brings us the common defence of allied forces, the security network of the common currency, the euro, access to the best knowledge in the world, a market for the services and goods created by us, as well as support for building state-funded upper secondary schools, e-governance, and hospitals. It will also bring the required amount of coronavirus vaccine to Estonia quickly and efficiently. The power of connected sovereignty will help us overcome together the great technological, demographic, and ecological changes of the twenty-first century, which will inevitably shake up the entire geopolitical deck of cards. Europe has created a unique opportunity for us to be an influential decision-maker, not just a bit on the menu, a building block in the sphere of influence, or a forgotten, frozen hybrid conflict.
Thus, aiming to reach the core of European politics and common decisions has been and should always be in Estonia’s best interests in every way, as this is the strongest guarantee for a small country for being able to determine our own fate and future.
We would hardly have guessed a while ago that the issue of health would rise to the focal point of all discussions, including in the policy of the European Union. This year, we experienced the moment of breaking down of the internal market, as well as the moment of the entire planet taking a breath.
Based on the Treaties of the European Union, public health is primarily in the national competence. Simply put, every man for himself. Thus, it would be somewhat justified to ask the critics why they believed that the first reaction to an unknown disease would be anything other than chaotic and self-centred. As a lesson to learn from the crisis, I support the European Union creating its own capability of declaring a health emergency, if necessary, and acting swiftly. A review of the Schengen rules should also take into consideration the lessons from the health crisis and become more crisis-resistant to prevent the recurrence of the selfishness which took hold for a moment last spring. When the borders were closed, all fundamental freedoms of the European Union were suddenly hit and the desire to obtain personal protective equipment or ventilators showed that the rules of the jungle applied.
Perhaps we were a bit disappointed, as we take the European Union as an inherent part of our lives. We simply believe in Europe and expect a lot of it even if we have been fiercely protecting our self-determination. Only in May, 7.5 billion euros were raised for diagnostics, treatment, and development of vaccines on the initiative of the European Commission. If we rise above the crisis for a moment, we will perhaps dare to say that it is a small miracle that we have coronavirus vaccines thanks to the mobilisation of resources and that we have a truly solitary system for the distribution of the vaccines between the member states, as well as for sharing them with the rest of the world. Just a year ago, it was stated here that the Estonian market was too small for pharmaceutical companies and new medicinal products would arrive here too late or be too expensive, but this should not be the case in the European Single Market. It is clear that we would not have coronavirus vaccines without the European Union today, and the comprehensive development of such a system must continue after the crisis.
Financial solidarity has been another important support. Among other things, the EU Recovery Fund provided an opportunity to submit proposals for further investments in strengthening the healthcare system and the hospital network. I am glad that the opposition has also already voiced their agreement with this plan and that we have widespread support. I would also like to express my joy over the fact that we have done good work on the international level with the World Health Organisation on the vaccination certificate and I have reason to hope that it will be taken into consideration quite considerably in the proposal of the European Commission for a vaccination certificate which will be submitted tomorrow (17 March).
An important experience-based observation lies in the last great financial crisis, the shoulders of which we are standing on today. As a result of the last crisis experience, we have strengthened the euro area and the coronavirus crisis has turned the work done into a critical safety net – therefore, the insurance policy is working. I would like to highlight just a few remarkable measures to illustrate this. The European Commission has already granted permits for state aid for alleviation of the COVID-19 crisis in the extent of almost 3 trillion euros. The volume of the European Central Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme is 1,850 billion euros, that is almost two trillion euros. This will be supported by the European Union budget support in the extent of roughly 1.1 trillion euros in the budget and in the form of a 750-billion-euro recovery plan. This is, in turn, supported by numerous other measures, an already existing security network, such as the European Stability Mechanism, and SURE, which supports unemployment insurance systems. Together, all of the above can be referred to as nothing more or less than a truly unique and historical display of solidarity, as well as a remarkable investment in future-proofing, as the structures built based on this experience will be supporting us in the next crisis.
The third remarkably important factor which ensures crisis resistance is the large internal market of the European Union. It is true that some shortcomings were also witnessed here and the fear has not disappeared completely now when new strains of the virus are spreading. Somewhat unexpectedly, the crisis revealed the fact that information technology enables the society to function sufficiently even in quite extreme conditions. I cannot quite imagine this cross-border coordination without modern communications and this is evidenced by the fact that we are also doing our democratic duty over the Internet here.
It goes without saying that access to strategically important materials and technologies is not merely important for the protection of our health, or for implementing the green and digital transition. Supported by this acknowledgement, the four female prime ministers in the European Union wrote a joint letter, in which we asked to focus on the development of the European basic competencies in this decade and to create the framework, legislation, and toolbox for monitoring the achievement of those competencies. Last week, the European Commission launched the Digital Compass initiative, which will also target the widespread implementation of our beloved digital signatures in addition to the chips, quantum computers, digital skills, etc. I hope that the European Council will approve this in principle next week.
Naturally, we wish for the European Union to also proceed with the issue of the free movement of data and help find value in all areas and industrial sectors. It is also important for the soon-to-be-discussed Digital Services Act to provide an opportunity for European undertakings and platforms to enjoy the truly extensive internal market. I am also happy to see that the European Union is seeking common interests with NATO in connection with developing critical technologies, as well as with the United States in connection with the issue of the regulation and taxation of platforms. I believe that the West has plenty of reasons to be quite worried about some of the global developments in the field of digital technology, and to act together.
We have not inherited the Earth from our parents, but have borrowed it from our children. The nature films of Fred Jüssi, Rein Maran, or David Attenborough, as well as the new Levila stories of former forest rangers help us remember how the living environment has changed. We are not only speaking of the consequences on the nature as a silent crisis, or abstractly as the disappearance of the biodiversity, forests, and soil fertility. Man-made climate change is the source of many new conflicts. The reason for the spread of coronaviruses is the constant and extensive changing of the borders of untouched nature by humans in favour of humans and so that the nature is losing its intrinsic capability to handle it. We all know the old Estonian saying, according to which there is not much point in making an effort for the gain of someone else. It turns out that there is no free or limitlessly consumable nature and that overuse results in lack of nature and biodiversity, which will, in turn, result in hopelessness and poverty.
Recently, a report entitled ‘The Economics of Biodiversity’, commissioned by the government of the United Kingdom, was drawn up by Partha Dasgupta, economist at the Cambridge University. The report reminds us the catastrophic trend of excessive exploitation and loss of the nature’s self-restoration mechanisms. For example, in the period of 1992-2014, the amount of physical capital - roads, machinery, buildings, factories, ports, etc, per capita has doubled, while the natural capital reserves per capita have shrunk by almost 40%. In other words, the blossoming of mankind has had a devastating impact on the nature. Thus, the report calls for including natural capital in the accounting, in addition to the physical capital. Sectoral pricing of carbon emissions has certainly been a step in the right direction. In Estonia, emissions have also mainly decreased in the sectors which are included in the emissions trading system, and tended to increase in other sectors. As we are talking about a global effort, it is important to stress that setting a final goal for distant future alone is not enough – what happens now and in the next decade is also important. Thus, I support having a motivating as well as discouraging system for achieving this goal. The European Union and the United States must work together to gain the support of third countries for this ambition.
I would like to repeat the position that the government supports the climate neutrality goal of the European Union, as well as including it in the so-called European Climate Law as a legally binding target. Furthermore, we also support setting a similar goal for Estonia, and have recently initiated the preparation of an environmental development plan. Within the next two months, we are expecting an impact assessment from the European Commission, as well as Estonia’s own assessment for how the 55% decrease in the emissions can be achieved. In the context of the decisions of the European Union, it is important for the achievement of this goal to be cost-efficient and fair. Vulnerable industrial sectors must be given the opportunity and time for adjusting with the changes, which is why the outcome should be a gradual move towards climate neutrality. I am personally happy about the creation of the Just Transition Fund for the most impacted areas. I fought for this as a member of the European Parliament and I fully support the Government’s decision to direct all investments into the development of Ida-Viru County.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has said that achieving climate neutrality is the new economic growth strategy of Europe. Upon launching the Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap) project in 1996, President Lennart Meri used the following Estonian proverb: “he who is late will be left without”. We should also take this healthy approach to the green transition which could be domestically referred to as the Viigrihüpe (Ringed Seal Leap) after an endangered species of the Baltic Sea.
I am sure you have heard that Volvo recently announced their intention to become solely an electric car manufacturer by 2030, as well as of Volkswagen, which has built their software centre in Tallinn, announcing their intention to become an IT company by 2030. If perceiving the surrounding environment, the digital brain and software, and storage of energy are the main challenges for the efficiency of mobility, the Estonian Bolt, Auvetech, Skeleton, Harju Elekter, Elcogen, PowerUP, and other high-tech companies have already left a remarkable footprint in the so-called car industry. I acknowledge our universities for creating this knowledge base, as well as Elcogen for their recent decision to build a fuel cell factory in Estonia.
The Government will certainly stand for ensuring that there is more of this smart and green industrial manufacturing. The 50 million euros of seed funding from the European Recovery Facility for hydrogen technology will hopefully give the required push to launch the hydrogen transition. I hope that the implementation of the Rail Baltic project will exhibit a similar digital and green capacity and intend to strengthen the regional and transatlantic cooperation at the Tallinn Digital Summit as well. We do not want to have the dirtiest footprint in Europe or become the junkyard of Europe by 2035, do we? In the new European Union budget period, 3.3 billion euros have been allocated for Estonia for achieving the climate neutrality target.
As green transition is, by nature, an energy transition towards clean energy, the Government’s decision to withdraw from the preferential development of oil shale-based energy form public funds has finally launched the discussion over various new opportunities and technologies. Within Estonia, this turn means, in the nearer future, shifting the energy generation from east to west, from the shore to the sea, and from rock to wind. Tarmo Soomere, President of the Academy of Sciences, has said that the future of energy generation is having a wind turbine in the backyard. This idea probably seems as strange to us as a computer classroom in 1990; however, if we learned anything from this era, it is the fact that it is not about the technology, but above all about our attitudes.
The EU strategy on offshore renewable energy and the hydrogen strategy which have been submitted by Kadri Simson, the European Commissioner for Energy, and the projects of common interest to be funded from the Connecting Europe Facility include prioritised development of the offshore energy grid and hydrogen technologies. I would like to praise the previous governments for the project of synchronisation of the Estonian energy system with Central Europe having received the required funding (720 million euros) and having reached the final stretch in the process of connection with Europe. I am also hopeful that the joint offshore wind development initiative of Estonia and Latvia will bear fruit by 2030 and have a motivating effect. It is, of course, obvious that the new European Union budget will not be sufficient for the implementation of the idea of the Baltic Sea grid and that the funding should be complemented from the income from emission trading, as well as from the budget of the following period.
An African proverb accurately says that if you want to travel fast, travel alone, and if you want to travel far, travel together. We must travel together and as one, as our strategic challenges change constantly with the population, environment, and technology, but their nature has remained the same. I sincerely hope that our ability to deter and our toolbox will be able to keep up with those developments in the world. We have recently launched the EU Strategic Compass process and I hope that we will be able to take stock of it next year. My primary expectations for the European Council next week are that we will exhibit enough strategic patience and that the five principles for developing relations with Russia will be confirmed. Speaking of selective inclusion, the best we can do is to selectively include the civil society and those of our eastern neighbours who share our core values more extensively, as well as to make the require decisions about the enlargement policy.
The new year has begun with reaffirmation of the tight and friendly cooperation with the United States of America, which is based on shared values. Thus, it is pleasing to see that a number of topics which have been creating tensions in the relations have found or are about to find solutions. I also hope that we will be able to continue bilaterally and as a region the cooperation with the United States within the framework of this year’s Three Seas Summit and the follow-up activities thereof, including the Tallinn Digital Summit. Reopening the world and mobility are certainly issues in which there are many opportunities for finding common activities and initiatives.
However, speaking about a so-called more sovereign Europe, the coronavirus crisis alone has shown that the preparedness and capability of the European Union to cope on its own must be increased. The capability and reliability of Europe in contributing to the transatlantic security with the help of the European Union’s tools must also increase. Thereat, we should keep in mind that the transatlantic relationship is and will always be the cornerstone of Europe’s own security and thus, the discussion about the military protection of allies, contributions to this protection, and military operations must occur within the framework of NATO and with other allies, not laterally or behind their back. NATO’s primary purpose is to ensure the security of the member states and collective protection. It is appropriate to remind here that NATO is protecting and safekeeping the lives of a billion people and only half of those people live in the European Union. Thereat, we should also keep in mind that the other half tends to be the half of a greater military capability of NATO.
First, I would like to acknowledge the three previous governments for their efficient and effective work in reaching the European Union budget agreement. Last Thursday, the Government also adopted the proposal for own revenue in the European Union budget, which has already been sent to the Riigikogu for approval – I am hoping for constructive discussions and a quick agreement which would enable to launch the investments which we have been dreaming of and bring the future closer. As I said in the introduction of this speech, Estonian issues are European issues and vice versa – strong member states make Europe strong and strong Europe makes its member states strong. On the initiative of the Government Office, the Estonia 2035 development strategy has been drawn up and submitted to you. The strategy takes into consideration the developments of the European Union and, as a long-term strategy for Estonia, aims to direct those developments. All sectoral development plans must predict and be able to shape European developments at least from the Estonian perspective, and the ministers will be reporting on those activities to the Riigikogu. Hopefully, the sectoral development in Europe will also be discussed more frequently and extensively in the Riigikogu.
This somewhat self-centred approach does not change the basic principle that when Europe is doing well, Estonia is also doing well, but should strengthen a sectoral feeling of ownership, interest, and target-setting in European policies in Estonia. Europe will never be a finished product, as Europe does not and should not have a final target, but it is important for us to care and take responsibility for its future, and to understand that Estonia should not, cannot, must not be left alone. It can only be what today’s people want and dream it to be. I do hope that Estonians will never stop hoping for and dreaming about a peaceful, protected, free, and diverse Europe, as there is no Estonia without Europe and no Europe without Estonia.