Estonian presidency of EU Council and implications for Moldova

Since July until the end of 2017, Estonia will be responsible for the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (which consists of representatives of national governments). So, Estonia is the second ex-Soviet county, after Latvia in 2015, that will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU. The Estonian presidency is integrated into a broad program of actions that was thought up for 18 months and is implemented together with another two countries, Bulgaria and Austria. Consequently, the strategic priorities of the Estonian presidency will be mainly identical to those assumed by the next, Bulgarian and Austrian presidencies.

Estonia takes over the presidency from Malta, another small country that during six months promoted the position and initiatives of the EU Council without failures. Despite the fact that Malta surprised the European colleagues with early legislative elections, the Maltese presidency was marked by a number of important accomplishments, including the ensuring of unity among the member states on the negotiation of the Brexit, increase in transparency on the European natural gas market, advancement of the European fishing policies (Politico, June 2017).

Through the agency of the EU presidency, the Estonian authorities aim to offer its expertise in areas in which Estonia excels – digital innovation and electronic public services. At the same time, the presidency will represent an occasion for Estonia to thank the EU for the contribution provided after the collapse of the USSR and during the 25 years of independence.

Profile of Estonia

It should be noted that Estonia is the first ex-Soviet country that fulfilled the Maastricht criteria and joined the Eurozone in 2011, followed by Latvia and Lithuania in several years.

Also, the Estonians are appreciated for the results achieved in the information sector both inside the EU and in the NATO. Namely for these reasons, Tallinn hosts the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice (eu-LISA). The Agency deals with the transfer of data about visas, applications for asylum and exchange of information that refers to the safety of European citizens who live, work and travel in the Schengen Area.

Estonia’s position within NATO is dictated mainly by its expertise in information technology that exceeds the civil framework and incorporates the cyber defense component. Immediately after joining NATO in 2004, Estonia proposed the cyber defense concept that was approved by NATO in 2006. Two years later, Estonia was chosen to host the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence.

Lastly, Estonia is the first European country that was directly confronted by cyber-attacks and elements of the Russian information war as a result of the measures taken to eradicate the symbols of the Soviet occupation in 2007.

Estonia’s vulnerabilities to the Russian factor are determined by the powerful presence of Russian minorities (25% of the population of 1.3 million), which is among the largest in the EU member states.

Even if Estonia is very progressive in the field of human rights, being the only ex-Soviet country that recognizes civil unions between same-sex persons, this is criticized only by Russia for the fact that it imposes restrictive measures on Russian ethnics when these apply for Estonian nationality. In reality, those that came to Estonia after 1940, including the Russian ethnics, are to meet a series of criteria to be granted nationality, including to know the Estonian language. Those without nationality vote only in local elections, but do not take part in national elections and the European Parliament elections. Currently, slightly over 6% of the country’s population does not possess nationality and this is a drastic reduction from about 30% of non-citizens in the 1990s. In the absence of strict naturalization instruments, Estonia wouldn’t have managed to join the EU and NATO, being disturbed by internal geopolitical discrepancies that are also visible in such ex-Soviet states as Moldova and Ukraine.

Priorities of Estonian presidency

The Estonian authorities plan to ensure a balance between the diversity of views and interests inside the EU and to concentrate on the benefits provided to the European citizens. This objective is reflected in the motto of the Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU – “Unity through Balance”.

Though the program of the Estonian-Bulgarian-Austrian  “trio” is more complex – five areas, five subareas and other tens of sub-activities – Estonia concentrated its presidency on four man priorities: (i) an open and innovative European economy; (ii) a safe and secure Europe; (ii) a digital Europe and the free movement of data; (iiii) an inclusive and sustainable Europe.

An open and innovative European economy. The first priority of the Estonian presidency is related to the development of a business environment with emphasis on knowledge and competition. Estonia aims to protect and promote the four freedoms of the European market (free movement of goods, persons, services and capital). Ensuring of facilitated conditions for starting businesses and creating new financing opportunities for companies, promotion of commercial negotiations of the EU with other countries, ensuring of a stable banking system and prevention of tax evasion are among the presidency’s objectives. Also, the priorities include the building of a functional electrical energy market and capacitation of consumers.

A safe and secure Europe. Estonia is convinced that only through unity worldwide, can the EU protect its citizens and promote peace, prosperity and stability. In this regard, the actions will be aimed at strengthening the efforts to fight terrorism and organized crime and at consolidating internal security and the external borders of the EU. Besides strengthening the information systems and the Schengen visa system, Estonia’s agenda includes the solving of the migration crisis and reformation of the European asylum system. The increase in defense-related costs, alongside the development of European defense cooperation and the partnership with NATO, are among other measures planned to be implemented until the end of 2017. Ultimately, the Estonian presidency specifies expressly the interest in supporting the relations with the Eastern Partnership countries.

A digital Europe and the free movement of data. Estonia is determined to advance the initiatives related to transfrontier electronic trade inside the EU, which would contribute to the integration of the European digital market. Moreover, the Estonian presidency suggests advancing the public digital transfrontier services and ensuring electronic communications services in any corner of Europe.

An inclusive and sustainable Europe. The aspects concerning social inclusion and access to high-quality educational services and workplaces, including the commitment for a more ecological environment, represent the fourth priority. In this regard, emphasis will be placed on the enhancement of labor mobility and ensuring of equal employment conditions and of a sustainable environment.

Implications for Moldova

According to the Estonian presidency, internal security depends on the external one. Consequently, safety and security in Europe depend on the situation in the immediate vicinity and on the global context (Estonian presidency). Referring to the European vicinity, Estonia addresses several issues that refer directly to Moldova – functioning of the visa-free regime, migration management and the Eastern Partnership.

First of all, Estonia intends to contribute to the institution of the new EU Entry-Exit System that applies both to the citizens from third countries who travel based on visas to the EU and to those who benefit from the visa-free regime. This system is designed to modernize the administration of the external borders of the EU without increasing the number of border police officers. Besides strengthening internal security, the given system envisions the easier identification of persons who exceed the legal period of stay in Schengen countries.

The second aspect relevant to Moldova, which derives from the priorities of the Estonian presidency, is to finalize the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). This system is applied strictly to the citizens of third countries that are exempted from visas, including Moldovans with biometric passports. ETIAS was thought up as an additional measure to supervise the flows of persons to the EU, which will accompany the European visa liberalization policy. The goal of the given system is to fight terrorism and organized crime, including to prevent illegal migration. The system envisions a string of steps: submission and processing of an application online or at the one-stop shop (when crossing the border by terrestrial ways); payment of the tax of €5 by those who are older than 18, which is later directed to the EU budget; rapid obtaining of authorization (several minutes) that is valid for five years or rejection of the authorization and possibility of challenging this act.

The third aspect of interest is related to migration management and promotion of legal migration.  This way, Estonia plans to advance the discussions on the renewal of the EU Blue Card Directive on Legal Migration.

Least but not last, Estonia intends to promote an effective and efficient Eastern Partnership. The Estonian presidency intends to contribute to strengthening the relations between the six member states of the Eastern Partnership and the EU. The support for reforms and obtaining of tangible results for the citizens are the objectives pursued along the increase in the resilience of states. In this regard, the Eastern Partnership Summit of November 2017 will underline the EU’s commitment to the region.

Instead of conclusion…

The Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU is an opportunity for the ex-Soviet countries that have the most developed relations with the EU, namely Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. But the benevolence and natural interest of Estonia cannot substitute the real progress in doing reforms, coherence and sincerity of national governments of the Eastern Partnership towards the own people and the EU.

The EU member states do not use to openly criticize the authorities of third countries. However, with the taking over of the presidency of the Council of the EU, Estonia could be forced by circumstances to level criticism at the government of Moldova.

Unlike Malta, Estonia has more reasons to be interested in the Eastern Partnership. That’s why civil society of Moldova, as the opposition forces, could explore the possibilities provided by the Estonian presidency to more intensely popularize the criticism aimed at the Democratic Party, including within the Council of the EU. This could hamper the Democrats’ plans to change the electoral system until the Eastern Partnership Summit of November 2017, without affecting somehow the macro-financial assistance of the EU.

The article was initially published on IPN News Agency on 3 July 2017

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