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President of the Republic at the Lennart Meri Conference dinner

Lennart Meri konverentsil.
At the Lennart Meri conference.
© Annika Haas

17.05.2019

Ladies and gentlemen, dear ministers and friends,

I’m very glad to see you all here in Tallinn again. The participants of the Lennart Meri Conference are united by the values and worldview that we share, never mind if it’s on this or the other side of the Atlantic.

There are sometimes even visible traces of common group-think among us, which itself might always not be the best of things. But we are all in this together – very much like the crew of a submarine.

I want you to think for a moment what it feels like to be at sea – or to be more precise – under water with this kind of vessel. Those of you with naval or maritime experience know that when the boat is submerged then its crew is virtually blind.

They can only use its sensors or a very narrow view offered by the periscope to see, or rather sense what’s on the surface. But what does amplify under water, is the sound, all the voices and all the noise which water carries all too well.

In many ways this describes where we stand today with our Europe, with our European Union. If we listen to the sounds and voices through the hydrophones then it might sometimes feel that doom and almost certain destruction is very near.

In our political submarine, sounds of populism, protectionism and unilateralism seem to be pulling this Union of ours apart. It makes us all worry, and worry for a very good reason. Because some people and politicians seem to have forgotten where these tendencies took Europe 80 years ago and many times before that.

They are playing with the fire they can easily ignite, but may themselves find hard to control or put out. We know that the real damage can be done, as has already been demonstrated – we are observing a Brexiting UK which does not seem to find a suitable way to Brexit.

It is easy to sympathize, if you are a rational thinker on EU, because we know there is no way to leave EU and win from the process, if you look at hard realities. EU makes sense. Economic sense, diplomatic sense, it makes sense as the safe battleground of ideas about our future, where the rules and conditions guarantee a certain rhythm of debate, decision making and execution. For smaller nations it is also a great provider of enhanced sovereignty, as we also get our word in because we have agreed so in the Treaty and nobody can walk back from this promise even in the midst of the most heated debate.

It is important to say this, here, in the beginning of a security conference, because long before EU undertook to start developing more the concept of common security, it has been providing security as a common good. After all, today we are days away from European Parliament elections and we cannot deny that the result of these elections will have various impacts on our common security or even security as the common good.

EP with important Eurosceptic minority will distract us from preparing for the future, because we have to concentrate on something some might call `stating the obvious`. True, but we can take also slightly more positive view – maybe we need to spend time on reaffirming that we still have, as we always have had, a reason to pursue integration. Troublesome and tiresome, I admit. But not universally bad, considering that young generations now take most EU features for granted and do not realize the huge and daily diplomatic effort it really takes to keep these things ticking along, including the good home truth that agreements mean nobody can get all they want from the union all the time, but most of us get most of what we need, especially at the most difficult times. But of course, while we are reaffirming, we miss some opportunities to work closer together as economic union or even as a union focused on its common defense.
All this concentration on our own inner workings makes us less likely to react timely to the challenges – be they in China and its rising economic might, or the plight of liberal democratic values globally, or even Russia trying to break our unity with varied asymmetric mischief.

And finally, Eurosceptic and populist sound, this loud noise in the background, makes it totally impossible for us, supporters of the European project, to have an honest and sometimes critical debate about the weaknesses of our Union. The space for constructive criticism has been taken away by the populist attack against the very essence of our European project.

Weaker Europe means less protected Europe from outside risks. Less chances to develop and fulfill the gaps in our common project. Be it protection of external border or savings in the banks.

It sounds like doom, but as you all well know, I am an optimist. I believe that it’s not that important what you hear or perceive to be hearing, but to look what’s really on the surface. Not rely on the periscope, but surface with the whole ship to see the whole – and real – picture. And the real picture is this: yes, the sea isn’t the calmest of seas, but there’s actually no major storm although it might have sounded that way while submerged.

On the contrary – public support in almost all EU Member States is at the highest-level of the last 25 years. That means that for most of its citizens the EU is a positive and legitimate entity. Yes, after the UK there are no more people getting off the boat, but many who still want to climb onboard – itself a testimony that it’s a good deal we’re having with the EU.

Ladies and gentlemen,

LMC is a security conference. Therefore, and once again thinking of the upcoming EU elections, I’ll stop on the EU’s role in security and defense for a little bit longer. Look at this submarine again, this time this concrete ship, the ex-Estonian Naval vessel “Lembitu”. Security and defense were also in the minds of the Estonian decision makers when they ordered this and her sister ship “Kalev” from the UK in mid-1930’s. They were probably the most up-to-date submarines of the day back then, but ate up a considerable part of the meager defense budgets of Estonia. However, these two ships made a lot of sense when you bear in mind that the plan was to use them alongside Finnish submarines and coastal batteries to close up the mouth of the Finnish Gulf. For that reason, the torpedo tubes and mine-shafts of Finnish and Estonian submarines were standardized, although the boats themselves and their manufacturers were different.

It all sounds pretty familiar nowadays, doesn’t it? The high cost of modern equipment, especially for small and medium size countries. Pooling parts of different countries’ capabilities together to form an integrated force and deterrence. Standardization, if not of complete weapons systems, then at least the calibers and ammunition, to allow interoperability. You see, in many ways it’s both the same challenges and same solutions.

However, there’s one principal difference. The Estonian-Finnish joint plan for cooperation was an excellent one from the purely technical and tactical viewpoint. But by the end of the day it came to nothing for a number of political and strategic reasons. One of the reasons was that when pressed by the Soviet Union in 1939 the Estonian leaders of the day just decided not to put up a fight – it was a mistake for which we paid a very high price. Also, at the critical moment Estonia found itself to be without allies, because there wasn’t a value-based system of international relations and unassailable collective defense as we have today in the form of NATO and also EU. Balancing between totalitarian states, false sense of neutrality and the right of the strong prevailed over values. Therefore 1939 is a stark reminder for all of us where we will end up if we forsake our values, the liberal democratic values.

And forsaking these values does not start with a big bang, with a clear message. It starts with something unclear, it is like this ship, first you see a shade, but it is somewhere there under the water, being a risk to our values.

I strongly believe in our Union and in NATO, I also believe in EU-NATO cooperation. I am quite sure that our PESCO projects are complementary to NATO. We should make our PESCO projects and plans akin to what Europe does best – redistribution. And the less EU defence cooperation conflicts with NATO`s planning the more benefits there can be.

Europe has always succeeded in economical and social cohesion. We can also use more cohesion to do more for our security in the future. Over 6 billion euros are spent in the coming years on military mobility to make sure that heavy equipment can move quickly around Europe, but we can do much more.

I would look beyond the banking union, beyond the usual business, the R&D developments even and look towards the common good. European defence needs to be supported by the resources gathered by the European countrie. Bearing in mind that I am a president of a country which alongside Latvia and Lithuania also meets the 2% of GDP, but in absolute terms is one of the smallest contributors, because our economy is tiny and nothing will change that. I do think that we cannot imagine a common European defence union without redistributing our resources so that all parts of the European Union can feel secure.

PESCO seems to be the right direction to go. Like the military mobility project which provides resources without creating any additional bodies or structures. And that’s the way we can use what Europe does best and pool our resources, then we can be sure that we are safe.