An overview of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the Riigikogu by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas on 5 December.
Honourable Chairman of the Riigikogu,
Dear members of the parliament, honourable ambassadors,
Dear Europeans and all friends of Europe!
These three words formed the motto on our shield, behind which stood the hopes and dreams of 500 million Europeans for six months. People gathered in this auditorium obviously already know that it is coming together, looking for balance and making compromises, that help us find long-term solutions that are suitable for all and have a lasting effect. Therefore, we did not have any illusions that these six months or one brushstroke can solve all the problems of the European Union.
However, in our hearts we had a clear wish that our Presidency would result in a slightly better Europe that is more hopeful, more unified and balanced. We hoped that we would pass on the Europe that was entrusted to us in an even better shape than it was before, as undoubtedly all future presidencies will do.
Today, I can say with utmost certainty that we will pass on the responsibility of the presidency with a calm heart, knowing that we gave it our all. I will use this opportunity to thank all the 1 300 people who managed our Presidency, including the 101 members of the Riigikogu, the board of the Riigikogu, the European Union Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu, the 14 ministers of the government, the ministries, the Government Office of Estonia, Estonian ambassadors abroad as well as all the other people who represent Estonia in representative bodies, and the people of Estonia. I would especially like to recognise Heiki Loot, Klen Jäärats, Kaja Tael, Clyde Kull and Matti Maasikas, who coordinated and guided the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union from Estonia and Brussels.
I would also like to express my gratitude to previous governments and configurations of Riigikogu who contributed to the preparations for the Presidency. With our determination and resoluteness, no-nonsense attitude, quick actions, and smart solutions, we have shown ourselves and others that Estonia is a capable and dedicated member of the European family. The Estonian Presidency succeeded thanks to the knowledge and effort of our officials, politicians, private and third sector, and thanks to the hospitality of Estonians.
Each one of us represents not only the face of Estonia and the actions of Estonia in Europe, but often also the face and actions of Europe in the world. To quote a popular children’s song by Arvo Pärt: we may be small, but our strength is great. And strength lies in unity. This has led to the success of hundreds of meetings in Estonia and thousands of meetings elsewhere.
On more than a few occasions, my experiences with the Presidency have made me think that just like Estonia is part of the European family, Europe is also in Estonia’s blood.
Although the wind is currently behind the European Union, let us not forget that while we were preparing for the Presidency, heavy clouds filled the horizon and a great thunderstorm was on its way. After the Brexit referendum, the air was full of political confusion that is so common during crises, and there were even pangs of existential angst. Today, we have conquered the adverse weather conditions, regained control of the ship, and are sailing ahead. Thus, the political target set in Bratislava, Malta, Rome, and also in Tallinn during the Digital Summit on 29 September has allowed us to overcome the rough patch.
Things done during the crises have demonstrated the strength of the common decisions of the European Union: the euro area is stable, the migration crisis is under control and the European Union has demonstrated that it is ready for the difficult Brexit negotiations. The concerns of European citizens regarding security, migration and economic uncertainty will of course remain the focus of the work of European Union institutions in the future.
Dear members of the Riigikogu,
In addition to the everyday concerns of citizens, we have also searched for solutions that would have a significant structural and long-term effect. While not wishing to understate other important achievements, reaching the agreements required for implementing the Paris Agreement, approving the European Pillar of Social Rights, and developments in European Union defence cooperation (the so-called PESCO) are without a doubt some of the most important milestones for Europe.
With good reason, the Estonia Presidency has also been called a ‘digital presidency’, because it was our main priority, not just ‘some digital stuff’. In addition to telecommunications infrastructure, the market, and cybersecurity, the idea that our future together shall be digital also underpinned legal cooperation, transport, energy, internal security, defence cooperation, agriculture, education and many other areas.
During our Presidency, we have tried to show all Europeans how digitisation helps us save time, money, and other valuable resources, create new opportunities and make people’s everyday life easier.
We created practical digital solutions for the Presidency and contributed to the digitisation of EU working processes. In October, we initiated the first ever electronic signing of a legislative act in the European Union, which will hopefully become the norm soon. I believe that we succeeded in inspiring both our European Union colleagues as well as our Eastern partners with our e-residency programme or x-road experience.
While planning the Estonian Presidency, we decided to base our efforts on four priorities. As I sum up the Presidency today, allow me to repeat these four big goals: an open and innovative European economy, a safe and secure Europe, a digital Europe and the free movement of data, and an inclusive and sustainable Europe.
Although the end of the Presidency is several weeks away and in some areas, these weeks will be decisive, I will now present the first substantial overview of our work and the first assessment of the results of our Presidency. Today’s overview is certainly not exhaustive, and in-depth accounts of our achievements will follow after the Presidency is over.
At the beginning of the Presidency, Estonia set itself the goal of making an effort to stimulate European economy and increase its competitiveness. We wished to simplify operating on the single market and increase access to funds for small and medium-sized enterprises, so that the European people would profit from a better selection, quality and price of goods and services. We succeeded in reaching agreements on several important issues.
Economy, especially small enterprises, will be stimulated thanks to the agreement, reached under the leadership of Estonia, on increasing the volume of the European Fund for Strategic Investments and extending its mandate until 2020. For example, the Tallinn Airport has benefitted from the fund in lengthening its runway, meeting environmental requirements and improving flight safety, and more favourable investment aids and loan terms have helped thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises in Estonia and across Europe.
Economic growth is also supported by transparent tax policy. Today, the European Union finance ministers will unanimously adopt the e-trade value added tax package and paying the value added tax on cross-border sales of goods will soon become easier for entrepreneurs. In July, it was decided here in Tallinn that international tax rules needed to be updated in a way that would also consider the developments of the digital economy. A situation where online companies pay income tax only in the country where they are registered and not where they earn their profit is unacceptable. Today, the European Union finance ministers will also reaffirm the common position of the European Union regarding this issue.
Our task was to compile the last so-called normal EU annual budget before the exit of the United Kingdom. Our Presidency concluded with a solid agreement that won the unanimous support of the member states. The budget channels more money into associations, the Erasmus education programme, and there is also a separate budget line for strategic communication.
The Estonian Presidency also saw the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office to ensure the purposeful use of our shared funds.
In spring, we set ourselves the ambitious and important goal of making a significant contribution to creating a sustainable, consumer-friendly and smart European energy market. I can say without exaggeration that the 5 000 pages of the clean energy package required many working hours and focus from both the Presidency as well as other member states. This joint effort has led to the first agreement between member states. Taking advantage of this momentum, we hope to make great progress on the entire package by the end of the year.
In the beginning of the Presidency, we set the goal of reducing immigration pressure on the external borders of the European Union, improving border management, and handling the aftermath of the migration crisis. I can assure you that solving the migration crisis has become migration management: we are no longer trying to put out fires, and instead focus on long-term solutions.
A good example of this is the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, and the foreign investments plan approved during the Estonian Presidency that aim to alleviate the causes of migration. During our Presidency, we concentrated on closing the Central Mediterranean route from Libya and we developed a practical implementation plan for this purpose in July. Whereas at the beginning of the Estonian Presidency, 12 000 people per week arrived in Italy, this number had dropped below 2 000 by August. Of course, this was an effort of all member states, especially those who suffered from the greatest migration pressure, mostly Italy.
I admit that the reform of the common European asylum system has been a real challenge, but with joint efforts we have made progress that will hopefully be finalised by the next presidency.
In Europe, we have become accustomed to not needing to present our passport when crossing internal borders, and to travelling without queuing at the customs counter. To be able to enjoy Europe without internal borders, we set our focus on cooperation in protecting external borders, supported by technological solutions and fast data exchange. In 2020, the European Union Entry/Exit System will be implemented. I hope that the Estonian Presidency will also be remembered for the agreement on the creation of the European travel information and authorisation system.
Estonia has also encouraged showing a greater spotlight on cyber protection and cybersecurity. The first cyber exercise for European Union defence ministers, organised in Tallinn, was a vivid demonstration of how important it is for the EU and NATO to cooperate and exchange information. The European Union must handle threats associated with cybersecurity and ensure a safe cyberspace for every citizen.
The joint declaration of the member states for the creation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation is a significant step in ensuring Europe’s safety. On the initiative of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, 23 member states in total have decided to improve defence cooperation, increase their defence expenditures, and carry out several joint projects, such as simplifying and speeding up military transport in Europe.
During the Estonian Presidency, we hosted hundreds of politicians, entrepreneurs and young people from the Eastern Partnership countries in Tallinn. The Eastern Partnership summit was very successful, signified by a joint declaration, which among other things, set practical common goals for 2020. These are specific projects in the fields of economy, associations, and education as well as digital affairs that will improve the lives of millions of people and also help stabilise our neighbourhood.
“We are living in fortunate times of peace,” I said in my speech at the Bundestag on 19 November, the National Day of Mourning in Germany, and stressed that “It is the European Union that has made a remarkable contribution to this peace and understanding; its very existence has allowed countries and peoples to be brave and exercise all our shared freedoms. We must be aware and make others aware of this every day and safeguard what we have created together, which is something remarkable and unique.”
I will not tire of repeating that Europe must keep up with technological progress and make it work in its favour. Thus, I am very glad to assure you today that a digital Europe and the free movement of data is no longer only a priority of Estonia, but the goal of all of Europe. We reached a common understanding on this issue with 27 European Union leaders during the Tallinn Digital Summit.
Establishing joint rules essential for the development of the digital single market and society is a complicated and time-consuming task due to the different visions and readiness levels of member states, but also due to considerations related to trust and security. This is all the more reason to be happy about the discussions that we led and that resulted in several crucial agreements.
Through great effort, Estonia also reached an agreement with the European Parliament on banning location-based restrictions on products and services in online shops by Christmas next year.
An agreement between member states on the Single Digital Gateway regulation is a very important step for cross-border users of public services, providing for the introduction of the once only principle at EU level. This has been an idea and position that Estonia has held for a long time.
The common understanding of member states on making e-government an efficiently functioning reality in Europe was confirmed in October, when the declaration on eGovernment was signed in Tallinn. A harmonised spectrum band policy makes superfast (5G) communication, self-driving transport, the Internet of Things and many other things a reality. The 5G declaration signed by the ministers of 28 member states and Norway will definitely provide the necessary boost for the development of super-fast internet connections.
In September, on the initiative of Estonia and other digitally-minded member states, the European Commission presented its highly anticipated draft legislation for the free movement of data. We have made efforts to bring discussions on the free movement of data to all Council configurations and establish a common understanding of our digital future. During our Presidency, Estonia has become known as the spokesperson for the free movement of data as the fifth freedom of the EU.
Developing digital solutions was an important subject at the African Union – EU Summit last week. I touched upon it in my speech and in bilateral meetings with African leaders. We also signed cooperation agreements with the African Union and Mauritius for the development of e-governance.
The continuation of the success story of digital solutions and maintaining its reputation will require effort from Estonia, Europe and the world even after our Presidency has ended.
When I stood before you in spring, I promised that in addition to stimulating Europe’s economy and developing the single market, we would consider a clean and caring living environment and creating equal opportunities for everyone equally important.
During the Social Summit in Gothenburg, while discussing the social dimension of Europe, I once again experienced the strong unity of the European Union. By signing the European Pillar of Social Rights in the name of all 28 member states, we made a promise to reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality together. We believe in a Europe that offers equal opportunities and access to labour market, fair working conditions, as well as social protection and social inclusion.
I am glad that we managed to agree with the member states on the creation of the European Solidarity Corps, which gives young people an opportunity to gain skills, knowledge and experience through voluntary work in other countries.
Allow me to briefly talk about the discussion on the Posting of Workers Directive, which also widely resonated with the Estonian public. Although the directive concerns only a small part of European Union workers, the issue has unfortunately divided older and newer member states, Western and Eastern Europe for quite some time. Reaching an agreement between the member states required excellent diplomatic and negotiating skills. This was a vivid example of putting the motto of the Estonian Presidency – ‘Unity through balance’ – into action.
There must be balance in all areas of life around us. Thus we tried to find a balance between nature and man during the complicated negotiations regarding the climate and waste policy of the European Union.
Estonia is very serious about implementing the Paris Agreement and I can assure you that we worked hard to agree on the rules that are required for this. Negotiations with the European Parliament continue until the last days before Christmas on sectors not included in the Emissions Trading System. However, I do believe that it is not impossible that history books may write about how all agreements required for implementing the Paris Agreement in the European Union were reached as a result of the Estonian Presidency.
Dear members of the Riigikogu,
During the working dinner held in Tallinn in September with EU heads of state or government, we noted that addressing the most burning issues of citizens requires more frequent meetings in the future and an open discussion of even the most complex topics. Based on this, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk submitted a so-called action plan for heads of state, a plan for future discussions. We can feel proud that the birth of the Leaders’ Agenda can be traced to Tallinn.
In December, we will discuss the future of our single currency, the euro, under the auspices of this plan. I agree with the call to action of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, for all member states, with the exception of Denmark and the United Kingdom, to switch to the single currency.
The economic and monetary union and the euro only constitute the means that are expected to provide stability for the development of the economy and support for the single market of the European Union. It is up to each state to keep its economy competitive and sufficiently flexible. This cannot be replaced by increasing the joint responsibilities of the euro area, nor by the emergency crisis measures of the European Central Bank. Estonia has always emphasised that agreed rules for the functioning of the economic and monetary union must be followed, but we agree that the structure of the monetary union needs reinforcing.
In February, we will discuss our greatest priorities for the next budget period with the heads of state and government. Estonia will go to these talks continuing to emphasise the importance of these EU policies that are directed at increasing cohesion between countries and regions, creating equal opportunities for entrepreneurs, including in the countryside, and improving connections with more remote areas of Europe.
Starting this speech, I said that hopefully Europe will be a slightly better, more hopeful, more united and more balanced place after our Presidency. However, after these six months, Estonia is definitely a different country. We are wiser, more experienced and more confident than before. We have learned, made efforts, and succeeded. And perhaps most importantly, we are understood better across Europe and we have more friends than ever.
It is said that Estonians are very concerned with what others think about them. There may be a grain of truth in this and sometimes it is also good to have a healthy laugh about it. But I would not like to live in a country where people do not care about their neighbours’ opinion at all. As Prime Minister, travelling over the course of these six months has made me proud to hear praise for our country, our nature, our people, and our work. I am certain that bilateral meetings with other European leaders have reinforced the European Union as well as the position and relations of our country.
I will again take a bow to all officials, politicians, journalists, partners and volunteers, whose dedication and professionalism have been admirable. I again wish to thank all people of Estonia.
Please allow me to also recognise all previous presidencies whose dedication and efforts made it possible to finalise several important agreements during the Estonian Presidency, but also our trio partners Bulgaria and Austria, who will take over from us and keep working towards our common goals.
I would also like to thank our colleagues and officials at the European Commission, the European Parliament and other institutions, whose professional support helped us complete the Presidency. And I would, of course, like to thank all our supporters in Estonia and Europe who were indispensable to the success of our Presidency!
Best of luck to Estonia and Europe!