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Estonian Euroskeptics continue to fight their corner

  • 2004-10-13
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - At the British Conservative Party's annual conference last week, Tory leader Michael Howard announced that: "Europe isn't working properly. The European Union is spewing out too many regulations. The British people don't want to be part of a European superstate."


Howard isn't alone in his continuing hostility to Europe. As Estonia approaches its first half-anniversary of EU membership, its Euroskeptic fringe haven't quite abandoned the fight.

UKVE - Uurimikeskus Vaba Euroopa (the Research Center Free Europe) - was established three years ago by a group of Euroskeptic Estonians. The organization recently moved

into a new office in the center of Tallinn, from where it publishes its journal - now into its 24th issue - These Tides.

"I would allow myself to be described as Euroskeptic," says David Wilkinson, the magazine's editor, a Conservative Party member from the U.K. "I very much doubt that a 19th century customs union is an appropriate arrangement for the 21st century."

Wilkinson believes that views on the subject of Europe are shifting.

"More Estonians are willing to call themselves Eurorealists today," he says. "They cannot bring themselves to be so politically incorrect as to doubt the mantra that EU is Europe, but they are prepared to admit that the costs are dangerously high. People are coming to see that we were right about the EU. I hate to say it, but I told you so."

Wait and see

Earlier this year UKVE board member Igor Grazin stood for the European Parliament. He failed to get elected, despite a refreshingly candid campaign whose posters featured the grinning candidate alongside the recommendation to voters that if they didn't like the man, they should send him to Strasbourg.

Like Grazin, UKVE Chairman Ivar Raig served as a People's Deputy to the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet from 1989 till 1991. A former member of the Estonian Parliament, he spent three years chairing the government committee that prepared the country for integration into the European Union.

Unlike some Euroskeptics, Raig now favors a wait-and-see policy. He says it's too early to judge who was right and who was wrong on the referendum question. "It'll be a minimum of five or six years before we can make that assessment," he says. "Possibly even longer."

Raig points out that it took Ireland seven years to see substantial effects of EU membership. Although he admits that Ireland witnessed an economic boom, he doesn't want Estonia to copy the Irish model.

"Ireland follows EU policies and gets money from the EU," Raig says. "But there's a lack of political will to build up their economy for themselves. They expect to get money from donor countries, and they think this support will continue till the end of the world. They're like unemployed people - they're not able to manage their own economy. Brussels has spoilt them. Ireland gets two-thirds of its money from America and one-third from Europe. It has Papa Washington and Mama Brussels - we just have Mama Brussels."

Raig believes that EU membership will lead to higher prices but not to higher salaries. "Young capitalists working for big multinationals will get richer, but we'll have a greater number of poor people, and disparities will increase."

He fears Estonia will be unable to cope with the welfare burden incurred by this rise in poverty. "Unemployment benefits and pensions are very low," he says. "There's not even a progressive tax system. Europe tells us to implement economic regulations, but we don't have to implement social policy. We need to let businesses grow, and then redistribute wealth."

However, John Kjaer, head of the European Commission's delegation in Estonia, believes that EU membership gives Estonia a new emphasis on social welfare and equality.

He doesn't doubt that EU membership will have radical effects upon the Estonian economy, though he sees these changes as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. "In 10 to 15 years, Estonia will not live on assembly manufacturing," he says. "That's why the present government puts emphasis on knowledge-based development."

He also points out that Estonia's economic growth is forecast at 5.8 per cent this year - a rise of more than 1 per cent on last year's figure. On top of that, the draft EU constitution looks good for Estonia - with, for example, an increase in Estonian MEPs from 6 to 7, starting in 2009.

"Our information campaign before the referendum was balanced in the way we put forward the pros and the cons," says Kjaer. "A lot of people's fears proved to be unfounded. Estonian public opinion in favor of the European Union is now 70 per cent - the highest level since September 2001. Some of the Euroskeptics aren't so Euroskeptic any more."

Treason

Although some of the skeptics have certainly mellowed, others have not. "I question the legality of EU membership," says Uno Silberg, former head of economics at the Ministry of Agriculture and a prominent voice in the "Say No" campaign. "The process was a contradiction to the Estonian constitution. In the future people will look back on joining the European Union as we now look back upon joining the Soviet Union. People may go to prison for what they've done. This is an act against the constitution and the sovereignty of the nation - a kind of treason."

Silberg argues that although Estonia can profit from EU membership to the tune of 3 per cent of its gross domestic product, the economic costs of membership add up to 15 per cent of GDP. He also reminds us that Estonia's trade deficit with the EU averages some 6 billion euros a year.

"Our movement to say no to the EU still exists," he adds. "But today we can do nothing. We haven't the money, we haven't the access to the media. It's not a hot topic here any more."

Rather surprisingly, Silberg currently serves as a member of the EU's committee of the regions. "The European side is work," he says. "The Euroskeptical side is a hobby - and my duty as a citizen."