Former Estonian PM Rõivas: let’s talk about good examples of Baltic cooperation

Taavi Rõivas
DELFI / Domantas Pipas

EN.DELFI by the Lithuania Tribune: Okay so we’ll start our interview. By the time that you were elected the Prime Minister of Estonia, it was really a different landscape in the European Union, dinosaurs were all in the European Union and you were a really young Prime Minister. Now we have young President in France, young Prime Ministers in Spain, Austria, Italy and Ireland. So, do you think this is a good experience for the countries to have young leaders? Or is it quite a dangerous experience?

Rõivas: Of course I don’t think it’s dangerous in any way. But I think it’s important to have good leaders, I don’t think age is the main factor even though I used to be the youngest Prime Minister of the European Union for three years. It might be surprising to hear me saying that but I think that age in a way is secondary, I think the most important feature for a Prime Minister (or for President that has executive power) is to have a clear vision and also to have the ability and willingness to explain in his or hers decisions to the public. I think these are the key qualities that one must possess in order to be a successful leader of a government.

We have a very peculiar situation in the world now, some of our economists are already saying that the possible trade wars will bring economic storms. Brexit and refugee problems, these are deep problems, but nothing in comparison to what is coming up. Do you think that the European Union is capable of seeing that its future belongs in this world only if it is united or do you fear that the European Union might start fragmenting itself and won’t survive it?

Well one of the strengths of the European Union is that it has repeatedly proven itself to solve the most difficult crisis. It hasn’t been easy with the financial crisis, it hasn’t been easy with the migration crisis, but we have managed both of them. The EU is as such is probably the best format we can think of in today’s world, to solve any sort of crisis together. If we would have been without the format of having the EU, if we had been just 28 separate countries (or 27 during the financial crisis), we would not have solved it as well.

So in my opinion, the European Union, as a format of cooperation, as a format of creating a single political and economic area is hugely important.

Now talking about trade, I think that both Estonians and Lithuanians remember too well how it was to live without trade with the western world. There was an economic system that didn’t work at all. One of the reasons for that is that it was a planned economy, and it could never compete with a proper market, but also the lack of trade lead to lesser quality of all the consumer goods.

We probably both remember also how great it was for the economy to open our market to EU and EU opening their market to us. So already for a country that has 1.3 million like Estonia or 3 million like Lithuania, it is huge to be part of a market that is 500 million.

I think one of the challenges is to make the European single market to function even better. Of course for the European Union the US is extremely important as a trade partner and vice versa I would argue there is nothing the US or EU could possibly win from having a trade war. I think the key to protect the US car industry is not to impose tariffs, but it is to find a way to make better quality cars so that they can actually compete with the German quality. At the same time there are still very many things that are made in the US that Europeans would love to buy and would love to continue to buy.

Right here I have an Apple phone, designed in the US, that’s logical that I want to buy that and I don’t need to buy a mobile phone that is necessarily assembled close to my home, I need to buy a mobile phone that’s the best one. So I think global trade is extremely positive and a necessary thing and in my opinion trying to fight against it is wrong.

Talking about cooperation. The Baltic States are famous for, capable of agreeing on things and also failing to cooperate on some aspects. Rather often, the Baltic States cooperate because the bigger countries asking them to cooperate closely. Do you think it is OK for the Baltic region to cooperate closer or compete with each over?

Yes, to have a healthy competition is almost never a bad thing. I think it is not even an option but a necessity to work together because lot of important things that need to be done are regional. The success stories of Baltic cooperation have been the ones that we been able to work together on. For example, building an energy market.

We are not at the final stage of building a common energy market yet, but we have already done a lot. I just had an opportunity to meet the Lithuanian Minister of energy yesterday (26 June) and we see things the same way. The common market is not complete, but today we are much further in terms of creating the energy security environment for citizens and for companies than we were five or ten years ago. That applies to connecting ourselves to the Nordics and to the West Europe with electricity connections. Also gas – having the terminal right here in Lithuania, building gas interconnections from here to Poland, from Estonia to Finland. This is all a part of a bigger picture and that is to be independent from a single source, which would obviously be very risky.

Where we need to continue cooperation is connecting ourselves to the world also transport-wise. I think it is a serious weakness of our part of Europe, that we are not fully connected, we are all logistical islands.

Of course the biggest challenge is the lack of a proper railway that could take both people and goods from our countries to the Central and Western Europe. There is also a good reason to keep an attention at the road connections between our countries, there is also a good reason to continue to invest in air routes.

I think these are all important things, because as the world is becoming smaller in any way, it is important for our people to be able to move and it’s important for us to be accessible as a destination as well.

So, I think, these things are key elements of the Baltic cooperation even though there is always feeling from outside that there is at least some amount of competition between our countries.

It is also, perhaps, good to know, that before all the Prime Ministerial meetings at the EU Council level, both the Baltic and Nordic Prime Ministers, meet every time and discuss the upcoming matters between themselves.

And in my experience of the three years when I was still representing Estonia around the EU Council table was often so that we help each other by rising the concerns of each other and that cooperation, actually, was where very positive. So – in conclusion – there are many good examples as of the Baltic cooperation.

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