Eurodebate in Estonia: pros and contras in Estonian press

Paper presented at the joint seminar "Estonia and Finland in the process of eurointegration"

Laulasmaa, 6.-7. November 1998

Mait Talts

Institute for European Studies

Tallinn, Estonia

Basic remarks

During the last couple of years Estonia's prospects concerning the perspectives of the EU accession have changed principally. In July 1997 Estonia became one of the candidate countries of the European Union, with whom the European Commission recommended to begin the accession negotiations. In December 1997 this decision was confirmed by EU Luxembourg summit and the formal accession negotiations began in April 1998. The new situation demanded also different level of the public debate about the consequences of Estonia's possible EU membership.

Discussions about possible joining with EU have started in Estonia quite recently. The first articles in Estonian press about the EU began to appear during the restoration of independence. These were mostly informative articles, which tried to avoid the question about Estonia's the possible future accession. EU was considered to be an important actor on the international arena, which impact was expected to grow after the collapse of Soviet Union.

The question about Estonia's possible EU membership appeared in Estonian press as early as 1992. At that time the Estonian government began to hold close political contacts with the European Union. During the next couple of years the question of joining the EU became one of the priorities of Estonian foreign policy. The characteristic feature of that time was the fact that the press debate was gone much ahead of the related informal discussion and the question about Estonia's possible EU membership wasn't the subject of public discussion yet. The ordinary people didn't acknowledge the whole importance of the issue.

This was mainly caused by the fact that Estonia had restored its independence quite recently and Estonia's public opinion wasn't very eager to discuss a problem concerning the possible loss of Estonia's regained sovereignty. Despite the fact that it would be the first time in history when such question would be asked. As public opinion polls indicate the biggest problem for Estonia is a great number of people still indifferent towards country's possible EU membership. The significant nu mber of people had preferred to stay neutral. On the other hand the problem wasn't either emotionally very gripping, like the question about Estonian independence was only couple of years earlier. It was difficult to remain neutral about the question of E stonia's independence. Only quite recently the ordinary people began to acknowledge the importance of the question and gradually Estonia's possible EU membership is becaming a subject of both journalistic and informal public debate.

During the last couple of years some politicians, intellectuals and lobbyists have been trying to influence the development of the public opinion in one or another way. The press, both printed and electronic media is widely used for thi s purpose. But the eurodebate has already become a subject of public informal discussion. According to the last so-called Central and Eastern Eurobarometer survey 11% of Estonians answered that they get main information about EU at their working places; t he other 11% from libraries and 9% indicated Internet as their main source of information about EU. This confirms once again the presumption that EU has become a subject of public discussion in Estonia. Recently were opened the pages of Estonian eurodebat e ( and the Home of Estonian Euroscepticism ( on the Internet.

In the ideal sense the eurodebate should be something resembling sophisticated marketing analysis. All the possible costs and benefits of the accession process must be revealed. Marketing specialists speak about so-called SWOT method, w hich tries simply to find out the strengths, the weaknesses, the opportunities and the threats of the particular project. The similar approach can be implemented in the case of European Union. Naturally, the euro-optimists stress on the strengths and oppo rtunities, eurosceptics on the weaknesses and threats, related with the accession perspectives.

From late 1996 the different political forces and some of informal lobby groups have done much to promote eurodebate. We can talk about the propaganda in favour and against Estonia's accession. In the beginning of 1997 we could even spe ak about Estonia's official europropaganda, because at the time many high rank governmental officers (such as the minister of foreign affairs Mr. Toomas Henrik Ilves, minister of European issues Mrs. Andra Veidemann, minister of finances Mr. Mart Opmann) expressed their euro-optimistic views in Estonian press. But this period remained quite short. The government seemed to realize this kind of europropaganda wouldn't be taken very seriously. Obviously they understood that it wouldn't be reasonable to overb urden people's minds with information before the referendum about European Union. At the same time some journalists and intellectuals began to manifest their positions generally favourable to the EU. Some of them can be classified as "unofficial" lobbyist s, e.g. a columnist of "Eesti Päevaleht" daily Enn Soosaar, who is known as a very close friend of President Meri. Hereafter there are expected more specialists participating in constructive eurodebate.

There is quite wide consensus among the main political parties about Estonia having no alternatives to the EU and their attitude is generally quite favourable to the EU. The only political force that manifests strong opposition to the E U is The Future Party (TEE), which gathered about 4% of the votes during the last parliamentary elections. But it is quite obvious that this political force tries to use the anti-EU sentiments for their efforts to get at least some seats in Estonian parli ament. In mentioned context, the anti-EU manifestation is an instrument for becoming visible on the political arena.

But on the other hand the Estonian eurosceptics are in fact quite heterogeneous group of people. Some of Estonian eurosceptics can be regarded mild sceptics. These are the intellectuals expressing their views periodically in newspapers. Being generally sceptical they don't see only the weaknesses and threats of the European project, but also some of the positive sides. Some of the mild sceptics (such as well-known writers Jaan Kaplinski and Tõnu Õnnepalu) have announced in public that they would personally vote even for Estonia's membership. The only reason why they keep expressing their negative views towards the EU is the widespread official euro-optimism, which deliberately leaves some aspects beyond the attention.

The Estonian media tries to hold neutral position in eurodebate. The newspapers prefer not to take sides in debate and offer their columns equally to the supporters and non-supporters of the Union. The only exception is business-daily " Äripäev", a newspaper whose editorial board has developed their own position towards EU, which coincides with the position of many Estonian businessmen and ordinary people. This position is directly neither euro-optimistic nor sceptical. Accordi ng to their view the certain time has to be given for Estonian economy to gain competitiveness. At the moment the joining would be premature, and this could be detrimental for Estonian economy and increase the social stress in Estonian society (e.g. expan d the income differences among Estonians). The process has been artificially speed up by Estonian politicians and civil servants who desire to get well-paid jobs in the European structures or at least finances from EU foundations. Ordinary people tend to think that the integration process is beneficial for only a limited number of high rank officials.

As the public opinion polls indicate the scepticism among the ordinary people is expected to grow as the price of Estonia's EU accession becomes clearer. This was the case in Finland during the pre-referendum period 1988 - 1994. At that time the number of "don't knows" gradually diminished and the number of those against the accession grew almost equally. This trend continued until the referendum and the Finnish public opinion became more favourable towards EU only after the accession t ook place in 1995.

In my opinion the eurodebate is not very profound yet, but it has become much more concrete, more practical and less emotional during the last couple of years. The debate is trying to weigh all the possible costs and benefits of the joi ning, not trying to stress too much on the mere advantages or mere disadvantages. Euro-optimists are more willing to see the disadvantageous side of the project, but they have a strong feeling that the benefits will simply outweigh the costs.

The position of some Estonian political leaders who claim that Estonia's EU membership cannot be debated does not actually promote the discussion about the costs and benefits of the EU accession. Some years ago President Lennart Meri ex pressed the thought that those who manifest the anti-EU feeling are actually against Estonia's state interests and are serving directly or indirectly the interests of Russia. Quite often the supporters of membership do not take the positions of the eurosc eptics very seriously.

The characteristic feature of Estonian EU discussion is first of all the deficiency of relevant and sufficient information concerning the EU, which leads to different kinds of speculations and stereotypes. Only quite recently the discus sion began to focus the main attention on the practical issues.


Pros and contras in Estonian eurodebate

Estonian euro-optimists stress naturally on the expected benefits of the membership. Among the positive expectations the most frequently mentioned are:  

  1. expected general economic growth
  2. the improvement in the field of national security
  3. changes in Estonia's social and regional policy
  4. freedom of movement and settlement and the possibility to find work in other EU memberstates
  5. the improvement in the position of non-citizens. The relations between the Estonians and the Russian living in Estonia are also expected to improve
  6. improvement in Estonia's international status, especially regarding the relations with Russia
  7. Estonia's final re-unification with Europe, often seen in the light of the theories by Samuel Huntington as the enlargement of Western civilization to its "natural" boundaries

 As we can see, some of these arguments are in fact universal, i.e. these arguments can be equally used elsewhere, not only in Estonia's case. Some are quite specific. The economical expectations and the fact that EU is believed to facilitate the citizens' mobility are the universal arguments. The security issues have usually different weight for the people of the different countries. Security issues had different meaning for different Nordic countries during their eurodebate in 19 91-1994. Some analysts have pointed out that for Finnish people the question about EU membership was in principal a question about Finland's historical and cultural identity. For many of the Finns the question was quite simple: where does their country be long? Voting for the EU membership the Finn voted for their country's Western affiliation. Finland made an historical decision to be clearly and undoubtedly a part of the Western world. These considerations are even more relevant in Estonia's case.

One of the arguments is the assumption that in EU the major developments are predictable. European Union is believed to offer a cultural environment where the certain rules are to be followed. Even the notorious eurobureaucracy is claim ed to be not as big threat. Because of the widespread corruption among Estonian bureaucrats and their irreverent attitude some people consider "Eurocrats" even a better alternative compared to the local "Estocrats". At least there are some rules in Brusse ls and the "Eurocrats" don't have the same self-interests, as the local so-called "Estocrats" do have. Many people believe that there is a different political culture in EU, which prevents the most serious cases of the power abuse.

The most significant negative expectations related with Estonia's EU accession are the following:  

  1. diminishing of Estonia's sovereignty
  2. growing bureaucracy and retardation of the decisionmaking process
  3. growing prices and the taxes; unemployment
  4. threat to the local Estonian cultural identity
  5. social politics exceeding the possibilities of Estonia's economy
  6. the disadvantageous demographic developments (expected immigrants from Southern Europe or outside EU; "braindrain")
  7. threat to the Estonian agriculture

These arguments are not considered to be equally important. The loss of sovereignty is in principle also a universal argument used by the eurosceptics of the other countries as well. Estonian eurosceptics love to put emphasis on the pro blem of eurobureaucracy. The implications about "unimaginably" high salaries of the bureaucrats in Brussels are enough to generate dissatisfaction among ordinary people of Estonia.

Estonian eurosceptics try to convince that Estonia's EU accession wouldn't be economically as beneficial as it is believed. In fact it is quite complicated to predict what exactly is going to happen in Estonia's economy. On the one hand there are expectations of the further economic growth due to extra direct and indirect investments from the EU countries and developed non-EU countries (in this case Estonia would gain a role of the "gateway" to the EU inner market). Estonia is also expe cted to get aid from EU programmes for modernization of Estonia's economy and standardisation of its products.

Estonian eurosceptics have expressed the belief that EU membership will bring along the increasing unemployment (average unemployment is about 10% in EU countries, while in Estonia the official number is about 2-3%). The accession is al so feared to undermine Estonia's free trade agreements with third countries (e.g. the agreement with Ukraine). By entering EU inner market due to the rising custom barriers and other tariffs Estonia will lose the opportunities to buy cheap products and ra w materials from non-member countries.

Estonian euro-optimists emphasize quite seldom on the future developments in EU as well as on the similar regional developments in other parts of the world (e.g. South-East Asia, South-America etc.). The examples of other European count ries (both member and non-member states) are used more frequently. The eurosceptics imply on the experience of Norway or Switzerland, totally neglected the different economic and geo-political status of these countries, which makes it quite simple for eur o-optimists to overthrow these allegations.

The example of Ireland is widely used by Estonian euro-optimists to convince the people about advantages of European Union. There is no doubt that Ireland is a remarkable "story of success", but the euro-optimists have forgot one very s ignificant reason of Ireland's success - the language issue. This combined with the lower labour expenses of that time was one of the reasons why American computer manufactures transferred their production to Ireland in mid 1970-ies.

Many of the arguments used by Estonian eurosceptics are in fact "imported" from the eurosceptics of the West. One of the arguments is allegation that EU would be detrimental for Estonia's agriculture not considering that the situation i n Estonian agriculture differs substantially from the situation e. g. in Finland before EU accession. On the one hand it is clear that Estonian farmers will get free access to the EU inner market and the possibilities to get direct subsidies from EU budge t. But on the other hand the quality of Estonian agricultural products may not correspond to the EU requirements, which would restrict the access of Estonian agricultural goods to the market of other memberstates.

The liberal politicians and analysts from assumption that the accession would harm Estonian agriculture only if the integration process would be too rapid, without giving enough time for the agricultural sector to gain competitiveness. If the EU will not change its agricultural policy in the nearest future, the accession would rather be beneficial for Estonia's agriculture. But at the same time there has been expressed the fear that the accession of Poland will most certainly create dis balance in EU agricultural budget.

Some of the arguments used by Estonian eurosceptics are in fact strongly emotional, having thus great impact on the people. One of these "arguments" is widely used comparison of two unions - European Union and Soviet Union. "We have jus t left one Union, why should we join another..." this kind of expression is widely used. This quite "idiot-proof" conclusion "works" quite well in the context of Estonia, because of the deep roots in Estonian public consciousness.

Quite often the Estonian eurosceptics and the sceptically minded journalists imply on some stupid cases or on the cases presented as stupid cases. This was very much true in the infamous case with wooden brushes used in Estonian farms, which the specialists from European Union demanded to change with the plastic ones.

Social issues are one of the obstacles hindering Estonia's integration into the European Union. In this respect Estonia is far from being ready for accession. There has been expressed even a fear that the adoption of EU social programme s will exceed the possibilities of Estonian economy. Estonia has to solve many social and economical problems before the country is able to join the Union.

In conclusion I have to admit that there is a need for a more constructive discussion in Estonian press. Only profoundly analysed arguments are worth to be used before the nation is going to vote about their joining the European Union. Emotional approach in these issues may lead to undesirable future of the country.

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