Estonians don't approve EU sanctions on Austria

  • 2000-02-17
  • By Brooke Donald
TALLINN – The European Union's reaction to Austria's new coalition government has had a negative effect on Estonians who see the bloc's isolation of one of its members as undemocratic and reminiscent of another union that is not easily left behind.

Since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has decidedly been looking west: for trade opportunities, for political support and for security. In March of 1998 when Estonia began membership negotiations with the European Union, the government and the people were set forth on an accession path.

Along the way, dissenters have opposed integration arguing that Estonia's sovereignty will be usurped by a central European government. Estonian authorities have tried to temper fears that the EU will swallow the small Baltic nation and actually gained some ground last year, as a Saar opinion poll indicated that Estonians are warming to the issue of membership.

But, the latest row between Austria and her 14 EU partners, have opinions of the bloc plummeting and politicians questioning how to go forward without compromising their respective relationships with Austria, the EU and their constituencies.

"We don't want to go against the EU, but we also don't want to go against Austria who may have the power to block enlargement," said MP Sven Mikser, of the Center opposition party. "But, we can't be supportive of the EU's action because the Estonians are against it."

In a recent Internet poll conducted by the daily newspaper, Postimees, 68 percent of the 1,352 Estonians who logged-on to register their views of the EU's action toward Austria, said their opinions of the bloc had worsened because of the feud.

The staunch disapproval by Estonians of the way the EU is handling the inclusion of Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in Austria's new coalition government can be somewhat explained by the country's occupied past and people's fear it could happen again. But, caution some, Estonians shouldn't get on the bandwagon of anti-enlargement ralliers who are appealing to emotions during a media circus.

"Sovereignty is a worrisome issue for anyone joining a union," said MP Mari-Ann Kelam, of the ruling coalition's Pro Patria Union. "What this current action on the part of the EU has done has added fuel to the fire of the people who raise the cheap argument that we just left one union, why should we join another."

Kelam answered her own question rhetorically, noting its simplicity, "Well, who would you rather have meddling in your internal affairs: Russia or other European countries?"

In order for Estonia to weather through the storm that has clouded diplomatic relations in the EU, applicant countries must stay in the debates, convince the populace that Estonia's role is active, not submissive and not make head-strong arguments for or against the union's action.

"It is very wise to keep a low profile right now (as far as official political opinions)," Mikser said.

Without officially going against the European countries who have dealt strong words to Vienna, Estonian politicians say that the EU should be careful whose voices it tries to suppress and whose it lets sing.

Both Kelam, Mikser and deputy chairman of Estonia's Parliament, Tunne Kelam, said the EU has disproportionately acted against the far-right, when coalition governments composed of the far left, for example in Italy, have been allowed without contention.

"If you have two policies about how you treat problems on the right and the left, the left is inclusive, and on the right it is exclusion, that is a double standard," Mari-Ann Kelam said. "I would prefer to see the people on the right be shifted to the center in the way Europe tries to do with the left."

She suggested, however, that Estonia remain a part of the process of reforming the EU – an ongoing series of reforms to get ready for enlargement that the member states have dubbed the Intergovernmental Conference.

On Feb. 15, the two other Baltic countries plus Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Malta opened formal membership talks with the EU. Haider has expressed his opposition to Eastern expansion, but top EU officials say the 12 applicant countries have no need to worry.

"Someone once said that joining the EU is like trying to catch up to a moving object," she said. "We have to let people know that we still have our say in the way structures are created and in the way the EU can go. No one wants to feel that they are being lambs led to slaughter."