TALLINN - Estonians were delighted to learn last week that Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a Social Democrat and former foreign minister, was appointed deputy chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, an unexpected and high-profile appointment for the Baltic country.
Ilves, one of the most seasoned politicians in Estonia, will chair meetings of the committee during sessions when the actual chairman, Elmar Brock, a member of the European People's Party (EPP-ED), is absent.
But the importance of Ilves' appointment, backed by the Party of European Socialists, the second largest group in the European Parliament after the EPP-ED, goes beyond just Estonia, and it will give the Baltic states a greater say in the formulation of European foreign policy, still an area of grave concern to all three countries.
According to available information, the foreign committee's board will soon assign specific topics to all committee members. Speaking to the daily Postimees in an interview, Ilves said he would like to deal with the European Parliament's new neighbor policy.
"This includes the EU's foreign political relations with Russia," he said, adding that, in the opinion of many of the new member states, EU policy has been too trustful of Russia in the run-up to the 10-country enlargement in May. "I believe that we can make adjustments to overcome this shortcoming, so that the EU's foreign policy line in regards to Russia would be less naive and more critical," he said.
Commenting on the appointment, Ivari Padar, chairman of the Estonian Social Democratic Party, backed Ilves on this score."I hope that Europarliament's Russia-policy, too, will become a lot more adequate from now on - more than it is at this point," he said.
Padar said Ilves' position would be strong since he was broadly known among decision-makers in Europe.Merko Mihkelson, chairman of Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said Ilves' post was a highly valued position. "It's namely this commission that plays an important role in protecting Estonia's national interests," he told the Eesti Paevaleht daily.
Ilves, who served as foreign minister from 1996 to 1998 and 1999 to 2002, said he also hoped to develop the EU's security policy, which needs more attention.
"By this I mean not so much military issues but the issue of terrorism on the whole," he told the paper.
Otherwise Ilves was quick to stress the significance of the appointment in relation to Estonia and as an argument against Euroskepticism.
"We've had to listen to incompetent rhetoric in Estonia all the time, claiming that the Europarliament elections don't make sense because there would be so few Estonians [there], and they wouldn't be listened to," he said. "As we see, we're being listened to indeed."
Ilves also said that it was remarkable that PES, which has several former prime ministers and foreign ministers throughout Europe, nominated him. Former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen even reportedly stepped down as candidate for deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Ilves' favor.
"I don't know why he did it. It was, of course, nice of him," Ilves commented.
The second deputy chairman of the committee is Britain's Geoffrey Van Orden of the PPE-ED group, while the third deputy chair is Britain's Emma Nicholson of the liberal faction.
Ilves won more than 76,000 votes in the June 13 Europarliament elections.