Improving Eastern expertise in EU foreign policy

  • 2004-10-20
  • by Gary Peach
Estonia's Social Democrats handily won the European Parliament elections last summer, taking three of the country's six seats. The victory was in part due to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose experience in foreign affairs is unrivaled in Estonia, and in part a reaction to the smear campaign waged by right-wing parties to discredit him. As a result, he was named vice chairman of Europarliament's foreign affairs committee, and Res Publica, Estonia's ruling party, had to stay home. The Baltic Times recently caught up with Ilves - who might be the only ex-American in the European Parliament (he gave up his U.S. citizenship in the early 90s) - in Brussels to learn more about his new position in the capital of Europe.

So how do you like your new position? What are your impressions and observations?

Well, it wasn't a surprise, but it was pleasant to be received as a full member. Despite all the moaning and complaining and the nihilistic self-loathing from small countries that, "Oh, we can't make our voice heard at all" - that's not true. In fact, small countries have more influence in the European Parliament than anywhere else up to now. That may change with time, but given the situation in the Council [of Ministers] and on the [European] Commission we can make a difference.

The second thing, which is very interesting and in my particular area, is that the people who thought that the East Europeans would come along and be the Trojan Horse for the U.S. were wrong. It hasn't turned out to be that way at all. There has been a complete shift of focus in approach to the East. And this is from the first day of the [new] foreign affairs committee, when the discussion was about Ukraine. But the seven countries I call the Plaeides - the seven that were in one form or another under direct Soviet rule - are really playing a role here.

On top of that, there are exceptionally good people from among the new member states. There are a number of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Czechs who are really sharp, so that on the commissioner hearings, for example, the commissioner-designates knew their briefs very well as long as they were dealing with the "old" subject. But when it came to the East, it was clear that they had not sufficiently predicted the subtlety, quality and intensity of questions regarding the [EU's] new neighbors and [as a result] were actually fairly inadequate. They did not give good answers.

The center of gravity of foreign affairs has substantially shifted, and the council and commission need to catch up.

Among Baltic MEPs you have a fairly important position as vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee.

I would doubt that a bit. Sure, in terms of policy-making, I'm there, but I think you can make just as much difference as a regular member of the committee.

But for what it's worth, foreign policy is an important issue for the Baltics, especially now that we're seeing an increasingly feisty, assertive Kremlin after Beslan. What are you doing to help formulate EU policy toward Russia?

Insofar as the Parliament can do anything, I think what is important is the level of expertise. The enlargement that brought in the Iberian countries - Spain and Portugal - dramatically increased the expertise and the attention paid to Latin America. So too this enlargement, which dramatically increased the expertise and attention paid to countries of the East, especially in the case of Ukraine, which was not on the radar screen at all. But now you have Poland here, and Poland is deeply and vitally interested in Ukraine - just as Portugal was interested in Brazil. And there's no ocean separating Poland and the Ukraine.

So in terms of what is being paid attention to in Parliament we can affect that.

The commission reporting to Parliament has to be much more savvy, much more with it on Russia and Ukraine. In the last Parliament, where I was an observer, there were a couple of really smart people who knew their stuff [about the East] - but now there's a whole bunch of people who really know, follow the latest developments.

We are a legislative body; we do not make policy. But we certainly direct the interest of the commission through the foreign affairs committee.

But how would you describe EU policy toward Russia? Is it appeasing?

Again, you cannot talk about EU policy - you can talk about the council, the commission and Parliament. The council, to my mind, has bent over backward to be nice to Russia and has at times disregarded the interests of the union. A good example is what happened two years ago when the council was perfectly willing to agree with the Russians - over the head of Lithuania - what Lithuania's visa-regime would be with Russia. I mean this is unconscionable. Fortunately, the commission stepped in and said, "No, you can't do that."

The commission, which is charged with defending the rights and advancing the interests of the union, has been better, but it needs to be even better - such as with Kaliningrad transit, inadequate answers on the Russian minorities from the commissioner-designate [Rocco Buttiglione], which I assume comes from not reading the brief carefully. Because Latvia would not be in the European Union if [the minorities issues] had been a problem.

I'm a little dismayed at the willingness of people not to respond [to criticism], especially in the case of Latvian education. As I told my friends here who asked me about Latvian education, I said, "What it means is that in Germany you would be attacked for introducing the German language into public eduction in 11th grade." I mean, come on - get real! But unfortunately, with some of the shallow understandings of what is going on [in the Baltics], people say, "My God, they're making people learn Latvian in Latvia in the 11th grade! How terrible!"

And this is clearly the case with Buttiglione - the man has no clue as to what is going on. And that's sad that people don't know what they're talking about.

But I assume they [the commissioner-designates] will learn that they are defending the rights of member states. I think some of these commissioners have not quite grasped yet that the new members are full members. They are not discussing third countries such as Russia; they are discussing EU member states. The EU does not discuss the nature of Latvian in the 11th grade.

Two Baltic countries share a border with Belarus, a country that is in some senses even scarier than Russia. Does this issue come up on the foreign affairs committee?

All the time. I mean Belarus is a genuine totalitarian state. Unfortunately, this is one area where new member states have to start pushing even more. Belarus has been a place that, "Well, it's so bad we don't even want to look at it." We need to have a smarter approach to Belarus.

And will you help do that?

Among other things, yes. But right now my immediate worry is Ukraine, because there is an election there now, and it has been a very, very dirty election. And it's a fine line - you don't want to lose Ukraine. You don't want it to move in the direction of Lukashenko; you want it to move toward Europe.

A very, very bad idea was to divide up the competences among the commissioners of new neighbor policy [Russia, Ukraine] and enlargement taking care of the western Balkans, the implication being that Albania is better off than Ukraine.

You are also a member of a parliamentary delegation to the United States. What does this delegation do, and what is your role?

We meet with our counterparts in the U.S. Congress, and I know a lot of people in Congress because I used to be ambassador to the United States. I see my role as one of those persons who restores some of the lost trust, to try to get the nations back on keel. They were hysterical on both sides of the Atlantic in 2003. NATO works as a strong institution as long as there is trust between Europe and the United States. And while I'm not in NATO but unless Europeans and Americans rediscover common ground, then other things, such as NATO, will be in trouble. So we desperately need to move in that direction.

I lived half my life in the U.S., and I lived half my life in Europe. I speak English like an American, I think like a European.

Did you agree with the decision to invade Iraq?

I did in 2003 based on what [the American administration] said. But I feel like I've been deceived. I put my neck out on the line to defend something that was not the most popular thing in my country, and now people are coming up to me and saying, "We told you so." The United States needs to recognize the difficult position it has put those people who were its supporters. And this whole approach of "old Europe," "new Europe," "freedom fries," was a complete disaster.

Not that I would rush to justify some of the things said by Europeans. And I wrote a long, philosophical essay arguing against [Jurgen] Habermas [professor of philosophy at Frankfurt University] and [Jacques] Derrida [French philosopher], who said the unifying concept of Europe is being anti-American. I think that's the worst possible thing you could do to unify Europe.

I think that these two big entities need each other, and this [collapse] of relations has had disastrous consequences.

Looking at Estonian politics-

(Smiles) I don't know much about it.

Assuming you do, Res Publica's rating has fallen dramatically in the year-and-a-half since it's assumed power. What happened?

As with the [Einars] Repse party [New Era], when you come out as a populist protest party with good-sounding slogans but no clue as to the direction of your policies, then a lot of people who voted for you are going to be disappointed. That's one thing. Another is they completely blew it in the European Parliament elections - it's fairly embarrassing for the largest party in [Estonia's] Parliament not to get a single seat here. But they did it by having a nasty, vicious, slimy campaign - mainly directed against me. And it backfired!