Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

The EU: A Step Backwards for Estonia? A I M I N G   F O R   T H E   E U:
A Step Backwards for Estonia?

Mel Huang

In May, the Wall Street Journal Europe published a thought-provoking article entitled "Estonia Should Join the EU, and Lead It" The article pointed out that Estonia would actually have to de-liberalise its economy to fit into the complex European Union. This raises the question: why is EU membership important for Estonia at all?

Written by Tartu University Professor (also visiting scholar to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London) Urmas Varblane and Dr Razeen Sally from the London School of Economics, the Journal article noted that Estonia's existing free-trade agreements will need to be annulled, trade tariffs (currently non-existent) will need to be instituted and already burdensome bureaucracy will need to be multiplied to cover all the tasks required under the back-breaking acquis communautaire, the Bible of the European Union.

For the limited amount of public debate on this issue that exists in Estonia, it is clear that scare-mongering by opponents and cheerleading by advocates play the dominant roles. Politicians from throughout the political spectrum look at Brussels as the end of a long road to prosperity and "re-unification" with Europe. But will they be shocked when time comes for a referendum on membership?

Despite the intense EUphoria experienced by politicians, the public is clearly not well informed about the issues surrounding the accession to the largest bureaucracy in the world. The government continues to emphasise the importance of a "return to EUrope" (though the capitalisation of spoken words is hard to determine), but it has never launched a serious public to win over public opinion. That is why most polls are inconclusive when the question concerns EU membership; along the same lines, there is also no vocal, Eurosceptic movement.

As time goes on, it is not likely that the constant barrage of press articles poking fun at the EU will bolster the government's image of the EU as a panacea. One day, the press states that the CAP (the EU's Common Agricultural Policy) will bankrupt the state by increasing the number of civil servants in the Agriculture Ministry. The next day, it tells people that the EU does not consider the milky liquid that Estonians drink real milk (due to its low fat content). In addition, the EU calls on Tallinn to set the cigarette tax according to the price of the "most popular brand" and accuses Estonia of dumping plywood and other timber-based products on the suffering EU market.

A case study

Aside from these one-liners, more serious issues that would prove to Estonians the benefits, or lack thereof, of joining the EU linger on the surface. A protracted dispute remains between an Estonian shipping company and the Finnish longshoremen's union. Due to a wage imbalance, the Finnish union instituted a boycott of the Estonian company - a boycott which soon spread to Denmark. This forced the shippers to cancel one of their most lucrative shipping lanes.

Clearly there is a wage imbalance between Estonia and Finland. That is natural considering history and circumstances. However, the Finnish union's demand for calling off the boycott requires the increase of Estonian longshoremen's salaries by several fold. Estonian President Meri was on the ball when he ridiculed the demand, stating that if such a thing were to happen, each individual longshoreman would make more money than the head of state. As a comparison, Meri noted that he had never asked for the same pay as Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

The situation becomes even more ridiculous as the Finnish longshoremen's union are planning to expand the boycott to the company Nordic Jet Lines. The Norwegian-owned firm is one of the main companies which provides quick transit for passengers crossing the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki to Tallinn. In fact, such a boycott would primarily hurt the millions of Finns who travel to Estonia every year and anger their Nordic partner (but EU hold-out) Norway. Then again, maybe the reduction in the number of Finnish "alcohol tourists" would be a slight advantage...

Estonian unions and businesses continue to call on the government to become involved in the dispute. A Finnish court has already ruled in favour of Estonia's domestic rules in apparent contradiction to EU directives; however, Brussels has been slow to do anything in this matter. This, if anything, is a clear case study for the small Eurosceptic groups in Estonia - to be used as bait for their movement.

But the benefits...

But perhaps the main reason that there is no real Eurosceptic movement in Estonia is the argument of the soft security guarantee. Many Estonians see the EU as a growing behemoth of bureaucracy and restrictions and regulations - as do others from Athens to Lisbon. However, membership in the EU would be final validation that Estonia is not a "post-Soviet state" but a "European" state in full. This would be a powerful signal and symbol for the national consciousness.

More importantly, membership would create a soft security guarantee against foreign (read: Russian) aggression. Though the Treaty on the European Union is no Washington Treaty and does not possess the coveted provisions of a nuclear umbrella, being a fully integrated part of a unit would provide symbolic security guarantees for Estonia. After all, an attack on one part of the EU would be tantamount to attack on it as a union. With NATO membership still a dream for Estonia, Estonia has little choice but to join the EU.

This creates the analogy of the inoculation. Joining the EU is like an inoculation against some contagious disease. The body is filled with germs and other horrible things in order to ward off the bigger evil. It is not always 100 percent effective, but it provides a guarantee which helps people sleep easier at night.

Mel Huang, 26 July 1999




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Romania's Only Way Ahead

A Green El Dorado?

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Tomas Pecina:
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Vaclav Pinkava:

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