1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Foreign policy and corruption at the core of the election campaign

The key top­ics in the elec­tion cam­paign vary, depend­ing on inter­pre­ta­tion. Thus, ex-prime min­is­ter Andrus Ansip (stood down in March 2014), who took the largest num­ber of votes indi­vid­u­al­ly, attrib­uted his suc­cess to the fact that he and his par­ty (Reform Par­ty, right of cen­tre) had been able to assuage the Eston­ian pub­lic’s fears about the coun­try’s secu­ri­ty. The set­ting for these remarks was the events in Ukraine ear­li­er this year. These had a pal­pa­ble bear­ing on pub­lic debate in Esto­nia giv­en that the coun­try has a large Russ­ian-speak­ing minor­i­ty and abuts Rus­sia.

Anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion was sug­gest­ed by Indrek Tarand, an inde­pen­dent can­di­date, who took the sec­ond largest share of votes indi­vid­u­al­ly, and was nar­row­ly beat­en by Ansip. Tarand stood, for the sec­ond time in a row, on an anti-polit­i­cal-cor­rup­tion plat­form. This put him on a col­li­sion course with Esto­ni­a’s four par­lia­men­tary par­ties. Tarand’s cam­paign this year exploit­ed echoes of an upsurge of pub­lic dis­trust in the gov­ern­ment in 2012, which had man­i­fest­ed itself in street demon­stra­tions (rare in Esto­nia) and a pop­u­lar man­i­festo high­light­ing polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion (unde­clared par­ty financ­ing, above all) and oth­er short­com­ings in Esto­ni­a’s demo­c­ra­t­ic record. Tarand’s suc­cess — he was com­fort­ably re-elect­ed — sug­gests his inter­pre­ta­tion is at least par­tial­ly cogent.

Wider Euro­pean issues, to do with the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and con­sti­tu­tion­al issues, played a minor role in the cam­paign. The three EU fron­trun­ners — Junck­er, Schulz and Ver­hof­s­tadt — were all solicit­ed for an op-ed con­tri­bu­tion by the largest Eston­ian dai­ly, Pos­timees. All three were asked by the paper to con­fine their remarks to for­eign pol­i­cy and secu­ri­ty issues. Pub­lic recog­ni­tion of all three as Euro­pean par­ty lead­ers — or even as polit­i­cal fig­ures — is vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent.

Vocal but weak euroscepticism

Euroscep­ti­cism did indeed play a role in the elec­tion cam­paign. How­ev­er, it was (inevitably) of a home-spun vari­ety and as such pre­sent­ed a high­ly local take. Eston­ian euroscep­tics tend to argue for three main objec­tives: the return­ing of pow­er in the EU to the nation states (devolv­ing the bloc insti­tu­tion­al­ly to some­where around 1986 lev­els of inte­gra­tion, accord­ing to Mar­tin Helme, a promi­nent Euroscep­tic); the ejec­tion of south­ern states need­ing EU bailouts as eco­nom­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly impos­si­ble to inte­grate; and mea­sures to ensure no south­ern immi­grants reach Esto­nia via Schen­gen. How­ev­er, the main pro­po­nent of Euroscep­ti­cism, the Eston­ian Nation­al-Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty came a dis­tant fifth among the par­ties, falling far short of a man­date.

It bears not­ing that the issue of open­ness to Euro­pean Union (and the world) remains high­ly coloured in Esto­nia by the 20th cen­tu­ry expe­ri­ences of the coun­try as part of the Sovi­et Union.

Low level of interest in EU affairs

Nation­al secu­ri­ty con­cerns vied with broad­er domes­tic polit­i­cal dis­con­tent for pri­ma­cy in the cam­paign. The turnout in Esto­nia was low, even by East­ern Euro­pean stan­dards Esto­nia — 35 per­cent, eight per­cent down from 2009. This can part­ly be explained by the low lev­el of inter­est in Euro­pean affairs among the Eston­ian pub­lic, and part­ly by the inabil­i­ty of most (if not all) lead­ing can­di­dates to gen­er­ate a sense of rel­e­vance among the elec­torate for the views they pro­pound­ed.

2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

The Ukrainian crisis and the “Russian threat”

The Ukrain­ian cri­sis caused per­cep­ti­ble anx­i­ety among the Eston­ian pub­lic. Rus­sia is wide­ly seen as a threat. About 26 per­cent of Esto­ni­a’s pop­u­la­tion is eth­ni­cal­ly Russ­ian — or prefers Russ­ian to Eston­ian in every­day com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The gov­ern­ment took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to appeal both to NATO and the EU for greater mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal sup­port. NATO allies (pre­dom­i­nant­ly the US and UK) have now tem­porar­i­ly sta­tioned 150 troops in Esto­nia. An air­field, brought up to NATO spec­i­fi­ca­tions in recent years, was put into ser­vice ear­li­er this year and now acts as a base for a wing of NATO jets.

Domes­ti­cal­ly, three of the four par­ties in the Eston­ian par­lia­ment sup­port a hawk­ish response to the per­ceived Russ­ian threat. The two par­ties to the right of the cen­tre (Reform and The Union of Pro Patria and Res Pub­li­ca) also sup­port fur­ther increas­es in defence expen­di­ture, cur­rent­ly at 2 per­cent of GDP. The Social Democ­rats, cur­rent­ly the junior part­ner in the gov­ern­ment led by the Reform Par­ty, are con­tent with keep­ing the spend­ing at cur­rent lev­els. The only major left-of-cen­tre par­ty — the Cen­tre Par­ty — has caused con­tro­ver­sy by expound­ing non-con­formist views on Ukraine (cast­ing doubt on the legit­i­ma­cy of the tran­si­tion­al gov­ern­ment etc.). It relies heav­i­ly, though not sole­ly, on the Russ­ian-speak­ing vote in Esto­nia.

On the oth­er hand, the sense of cri­sis has not led to any sig­nif­i­cant eas­ing is Esto­ni­a’s cit­i­zen­ship pol­i­cy. The entry of the Social Democ­rats into the gov­ern­ment in March 2014 was expect­ed to soft­en the cur­rent fair­ly restric­tive line, but has so far only led to minor adjust­ments tar­get­ing chil­dren born to non-cit­i­zens on Eston­ian ter­ri­to­ry (num­ber­ing per­haps just over a thou­sand a year).

Esto­ni­a’s stance vis-à-vis Rus­sia will in the fore­see­able future be deter­mined by two cal­cu­la­tions. The first involves a reliance on NATO to the fullest degree that the alliance (most­ly the US) will accom­mo­date. The sec­ond pro­ceeds from the belief that all efforts should be made to put Eston­ian-Russ­ian rela­tions on the clear­est pos­si­ble legal basis. With this in mind, the gov­ern­ment has pushed ahead with the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the bor­der treaty signed with Rus­sia only weeks in advance of the out­break of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis. Both strate­gies enjoy broad pub­lic sup­port.

Emancipating ENP countries from Russian control

There has been an upsurge of pub­lic sen­ti­ment in favour of Ukraine — but the events are very much seen through a Rus­sia-dom­i­nat­ed prism. This mir­rors trends in Eston­ian for­eign pol­i­cy, which over the past decade or so has sought to build clos­er links with all of Rus­si­a’s neigh­bours will­ing to coop­er­ate, regard­less of their demo­c­ra­t­ic record (ex-prime min­is­ter Ansip annu­al­ly vis­it­ed Cen­tral Asia).

Tan­gi­ble pub­lic sup­port to large-scale aid for Ukraine and oth­er ENP coun­tries remains min­i­mal. There is cer­tain­ly no pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment to com­mit greater resources to the cause, nor does the issue of Ukrain­ian (or Geor­gian or Moldovan) EU mem­ber­ship excite any overt pub­lic sym­pa­thy. At a more abstract lev­el, there would cer­tain­ly be sup­port for more effec­tive EU poli­cies geared towards eman­ci­pat­ing the ENP coun­tries from what is per­ceived as a Russ­ian stran­gle­hold.

Official support and public opinion’s indifference to Turkey’s EU membership

The gov­ern­ment has been out­spo­ken and stead­fast in its sup­port for Turk­ish EU mem­ber­ship over the past decade. This view used to close­ly reflect the posi­tion of Lon­don, but has now become more ambiva­lent in terms of its inte­gra­tion into Esto­ni­a’s stance with­in the EU as the coun­try has drift­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly clos­er to Ger­man posi­tions from 2010 onwards.

The Eston­ian pub­lic remains agnos­tic over Turkey. Well-made claims por­tray­ing Turkey as a poten­tial drain on EU resources or a source of large num­ber of Mus­lim immi­grants could cer­tain­ly sway pub­lic opin­ion against the idea.

3. Power relations in the EU

A staunch supporter of Germany

The Eston­ian gov­ern­ment has made a con­scious effort to re-ori­ent its EU pol­i­cy to Berlin since Esto­nia acced­ed to the Euro­zone in 2011. The stan­dard view among senior politi­cians through­out the acute phase of the debt cri­sis was that, should the bloc dis­in­te­grate, Esto­nia would do its utmost to stick with Ger­many. This is part­ly explained by changes in geopo­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions — Ger­many has obvi­ous­ly begun to play a key role in counter-bal­anc­ing Rus­sia. How­ev­er, there is also a sense — on the Eston­ian side, at least — of a his­tor­i­cal and moral kin­ship with Ger­many. Var­i­ous Ger­man-dom­i­nat­ed polit­i­cal forces played a lead­ing role in Eston­ian his­to­ry from the 1200s onwards. Lutheranism was adopt­ed ear­ly in Esto­nia, and in the 19th cen­tu­ry the Ger­man high­er-caste minor­i­ty, though resent­ed, played an impor­tant role in the dri­ve to neu­tralise Czarist attempts to Rus­si­fy the coun­try. In the wars of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Ger­many was pre­dom­i­nant­ly seen as the bet­ter of two bad alter­na­tives, the oth­er being Rus­sia. In the course of the more recent eco­nom­ic cri­sis, Esto­nia has come out strong­ly on the side of those sup­port­ing aus­ter­i­ty, aim­ing to exploit its bal­anced bud­get and very low pub­lic debt lev­els as lever­age for polit­i­cal gains with­in the EU. In short, Eston­ian gov­ern­ments over the past decade or so have increas­ing­ly wel­comed Ger­man lead­er­ship — though remain­ing wary over Berlin’s poli­cies towards Rus­sia (“Ost­poli­tik” is per­ceived in Tallinn as some­thing verg­ing on appease­ment).

On the side of “austerians”

Aus­ter­i­ty has so far trumped growth hands down. This has part­ly had to do with the fact that, until very recent­ly, the right-of-cen­tre Reform Par­ty-led coali­tions have man­aged to ensure sat­is­fac­to­ry growth lev­els of the econ­o­my. Also, the fact that Esto­nia, a rel­a­tive­ly poor ex-Sovi­et nation, was effec­tive­ly forced into the bailouts assem­bled for Greece and oth­ers via the ESM facil­i­ty, has con­tributed to strong pub­lic prej­u­dice when it comes to loans and spend­ing. Anoth­er fac­tor here is a per­ceived kin­ship with “north­ern” EU nations, seen as they are lined up against “south­ern” Euro­peans.

Esto­nia, as things stand today, is firm­ly on the side of the “aus­te­ri­ans” with­in the EU. Only the left-of-cen­tre Cen­tre Par­ty would con­ceiv­ably coun­te­nance a rad­i­cal shift in poli­cies should it come to pow­er (some­thing which at present looks very unlike­ly due to its inabil­i­ty to form coali­tions)

‘Brexit’: Germany replacing the UK as cornerstone of Estonia’s foreign policy

The gov­ern­ment has to all prac­ti­cal intents and pur­pos­es acqui­esced to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the Unit­ed Kingdom’sexit from the EU. Offi­cials have been high­ly crit­i­cal of Lon­don in on and off record brief­in­gs for a num­ber of years now. Britain’s goals and tac­tics are seen as need­less­ly and at times dan­ger­ous­ly divi­sive for the Euro­pean Union. As Ger­many has moved to the cen­tre stage of Esto­ni­a’s for­eign pol­i­cy ori­en­ta­tion — at least as far the EU is con­cerned — the atti­tudes towards Lon­don’s antics have become increas­ing­ly fatal­is­tic. Suc­ces­sive Eston­ian gov­ern­ments have been increas­ing­ly clear that the coun­try casts its lot with the EU.


This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site:

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.