Time for a vision decision

Time for a vision decision

The coming European Parliament poll gives Estonia an opportunity to rethink, and recover its continent-leading role writes James Oates

Like EU citizens everywhere Estonians go to the polls on 25 May with mixed levels of enthusiasm to elect candidates to the European Parliament. So far it looks like a wide open field of candidates, as you would expect in a nation where MEPs are not political has-beens or also-rans, but a constantly self-renewing set of engaged politicians, with much to contribute domestically.

The current President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is a former MEP. Ever pragmatic, Estonians see “Brussels” as a flawed but benign system that has itsuses. Events in the Ukraine have reminded them of the need for a strong counterbalance to Russia.

Until this recent intervention the Kremlin was seen as preoccupied by domestic issues. In the 10th year since EU accession, ties of respect rather than passion seem understandable. The relationship was certainly tested in 2011 when more or less the first event of Estonia’s eurozone membership was to be asked to contribute to the bail-out of Greece, a faraway land whose minimum wage is set at a higher level than the Estonian average salary.

But counteracting potential resentment was an acknowledgement this was the deal the country had signed up to. In different circumstances it might be Estonia that benefitted from a rescue programme. The EU is helpful to Estonian development, security, relations with Russia and global trade.

On a more abstract level, Estonia takes it for granted that sovereignty is not absolute - the lesson of the failure to preserve independence in 1939-40 is not to pull up the drawbridge but to open up as much as possible to like-minded, democratic free market economies. Estonia does not see cooperation within the EU or of NATO as a threat to independence but a bolster to it.

As long as political, economic and cultural freedom is preserved, the compromises of EU membership are seen as a relatively small price to pay. The EU has not limited Estonian freedom of action and significant infrastructure projects, which the country would struggle to execute alone, become much easier with EU support. But they do have to be the right projects. Speaking as a 35-year friend and five-year resident of Estonia I do wonder how the EU can help the country answer some fundamental questions about its own ambitions and its role in the world. The question is becoming more urgent, as the perception grows that national momentum of the last 20 years is now slowing.

Even as Estonia has grown into a prosperous and successful economy, repeated political funding scandals have left the impression that the new multi-party political class, like the single-party class that preceded it, is more focussed on itself than on the people. If this is true, is the European Union helping? Estonia showed itself at its best when implementing the flat tax revolution and taking world-beating strides in e-government.

Yet as part of the EU, Estonia is often forced to make uncomfortable compromises. Brussels’ current set of “country specific recommendations”, its prescriptions for Estonia’s economic health, seem slightly out of sync with what makes Estonia successful, for example offering advice on education, an area where the country already scores exceptionally high marks in international education rankings. Tallinn has occasionally also come under pressure to align Estonia’s tax code with the “old Europe” model.

Alongside other flat-tax countries, Estonia has successfully managed to resist the nominally progressive but actually regressive French-style tax codes. And while it may only be a petty irritation, the EU is also imposing money transmission regulations that will force Estonia to reduce the efficiency of its financial plumbing. Currently Estonian banks poll for transfers 10 times a day, now they will poll only five times a day, requiring the full international bank account number (IBAN) rather than just the local account number.

It sends the wrong signals. The way Estonia has pooled her freedom in the EU has carried a different risk - the risk of mediocrity or even obsolescence. Sometimes obsolescence comes dressed as modernity. Much is being made of the multi-billion euro Rail Baltica project. Such multi-country infrastructure projects involve huge financial and political commitments. Yet few are asking the real question: Why is Estonia sponsoring essentially nineteenth century technology, when the proposed “high speed line” will barely be faster than a road.

Meanwhile, we can all see that driverless car and truck technology is almost upon us. The Estonia of 15 years ago would be building highways in readiness for the technological leap to driverless vehicles, not investing billions in a clearly weaker technology.

With e-government meanwhile, it is Estonia that has much to teach the EU, not the other way around. Estonia is losing her vision of future excellence, and many of those that might have helped to shape that uniquely Estonian vision have decamped to Brussels where, having drained the country of talent, they are now learning the grubby system of EU compromises. The accession to the EU has removed hundreds, even thousands, of the best educated and most international minds of the country.

These are not just political figures but a whole range of others, from translators to lawyers, from civil policy makers to technical specialists. Once in Brussels, many quickly become accustomed to the wider culture and often easier life in the European capital rather than more Spartan conditions of the Estonian capital. It is a brain drain that Estonia can ill afford.

Closer to hand EU accession has meant that doctors, for example, find far more lucrative opportunities in Finland than in their homeland and it is the Finnish health care system that benefits from their skills, not the less well funded Estonian hospitals. That is not to say that Estonia should - or even could - turn her back on the European Union.

The question is how to combine Estonian culture and - largely English-speaking - European culture in a harmonious way that protects Estonian identity, prosperity and democracy. As the vision of a European Estonia fades, the quest for a new one grows more urgent. Turnout in the May elections will be interesting. Will it decrease slightly, according to the continent wide tendency? That will depend on whether the debate catches fire or not.

The more interesting thing will be the e-turnout. This election may the first one where the majority of votes are cast online. The transformative power of e-democracy, like e-commerce, is still severely underestimated. In the globalised e-society, the narrow, nineteenth century, definitions of national identity are blurring. Those who try to hide from this process are unlikely to survive, but cultures, societies and states that develop flexibility may yet thrive. Estonia has an opportunity to be among the success stories.

The rapid growth of e-government services and especially e-voting offers Estonia the possibility of far greater democratic participation and therefore greater supervision of the political class. President Ilves has sometimes mused that Estonia might become like classical Greece - the Athenian forerunner to global e-democracy. It is an inspiring vision, especially when applied to Brussels which has long acknowledged its own democratic deficit.

It is, however, not exactly popular with the political class which fears a huge loss of power, and quite possibly a threat to their entire existence. That of course might be the best reason to support it.