Of Estonia’s halfway point in its presidency of the European Union Council, Prime Minister Ratas was hesitant to label it a success until the full term has been completed, instead saying “it has been a good start but harder work is ahead.”
Summary of the ‘Half-time for the Estonian Council Presidency: Uniting through balance’ event (held by the ALDE party and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on 20 September 2017 at the Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels)
Prime Minister Ratas stated that he felt there was more optimism within and of the Union than one year ago. This is due to the emphasis put on the importance of stability within the neighbourhood. Prime Minister Ratas went so far as to propose that the western Balkans give up their partners in the East in order to strengthen their ties within Europe. Prime Minister Ratas expressed his hope that this would be spoken about further during the upcoming Eastern partnership summit in November which he expects to be a successful and ambitious event.
There were three key points which Prime Minister Ratas spoke of:
- Open and innovative European economy
- Prime Minister Ratas was happy with the fact that the European FCI is almost there.
- the Council are about to begin negotiations in relation to risk reduction methods for the banking union – with a view to reaching a position in 2018 and then seeking an agreement with Parliament.
- Comprehensive discussions are being had regarding the electricity market design with the aim of empowering customers and reaping benefits within the regions. Regional cooperation is required in order to make this a success.
- Safe and secure Europe
-Issues regarding migration have improved (particularly in the Mediterranean) but this topic is still top of the agenda.
-Prime Minister Ratas emphasised the need to co-operate with third party countries to ensure that asylum policies are followed and to work against terrorism.
- Prime Minister Ratas felt strongly that using I.T. solutions, data transfer etc that entry/exit solutions could be found to tackle terrorism and irregular migration. He hoped that a common EU Asylum system solution would be developed and in place by the end of the Presidency.
- Improvements of the Schengen information system was felt by Prime Minister Ratas as being crucial to tackle security in Europe. He wants to achieve the best security system without compromising the rights of individuals such as privacy. His aim is to “move information faster without breaching privacy.”
- There are more milestones to be achieved within the defence system including raising awareness of cyber defence, with the Cyber Defence Fund being a priority – Prime Minister Ratas highlighted the need to set clear ambitions and take more responsibility. Prime Minister Ratas hoped that the defence event in Tallinn in September was a positive example of the cyber-security potential.
- Digital Europe and the free movement of data
- Prime Minister Ratas spoke of his ambition for the EU to generate the most attractive safe digital system. The Commission’s new strategy in cyber security supports this ambition. The Prime Minister stated “data will be the coal and steel of this century”.
- Prime Minister Ratas stressed the importance of trust and security in bringing the ‘digital Europe’ vision to fruition. Trust and security are important cornerstones of the digital market. His aim is for the EU to stay ahead of the tech curve and be the leader.
- The Prime Minister felt that there had been positive moves forward in the ‘digital information code’ and the ‘digital market strategy’ and expected a prompt roll-out following the 5G declaration in July this year.
Regarding energy and environment, whilst he was happy that so many countries remained committed to the Paris Agreement, Prime Minister Ratas emphasised that the Union needs to commit to a more sustainable and cleaner environment. He was of the opinion that the Clean Energy Package will help to fulfil this ambition and hope that an agreement will be reached this year. He encouraged Intelligent Transport Systems and Services trials. Prime Minister Ratas was pleased that a review of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has been achieved. In response to a question on Emissions Trading Scheme, Prime Minister Ratas stated that it was broadly on track.
With regards to social agenda, The Council aims to be “united and decisive”. Negotiations are underway regarding the posting of workers and the fight against abuse.
In terms of comments on Brexit, Prime Minister Ratas admitted that the “United Kingdom leaving our union is a very sad moment” but emphasised the need to focus on the Union’s future. As far as the Union is concerned, Prime Minister Ratas stressed that it is “most important that we protect our citizen’s rights”. The Prime Minister repeated the importance of reciprocal citizen rights throughout questioning. He said once sufficient progress has been made on the issue of the Irish border and the financial settlement only then can we move to discuss the future.
Upon being questioned on the UK’s position on the Eastern Partnership, Baroness Scott admitted that it was unlikely to be the agenda of the MP’s yet but that it will be in the consideration of civil servants and liberal democrats. Baroness Scott stated that the UK was keen on the Eastern Partnership before the referendum and it should remain so after Brexit.
Regarding taxation, the Prime Minister was confident that an agreement would be reached by December on taxation of digital companies. A colleague of the Prime Minister stated that “the competitive edge of companies should not be based on taxation, it should be based on business structure, efficiencies and so on”.
Prime Minister Ratas was questioned over Estonia’s views on the Eastern Partnership. The Prime Minister stated that neighbourhood policy is a priority during Estonia’s presidency, that there should be a cooperation between the Eastern partners and the EU. Prime Minister Ratas reminded the meeting that whilst the border is physically between Estonia and Russia, it is also a border between the EU and Russia, as well as NATO and Russia. He believes that the Eastern Partnership Summit on 24 November this year will lead to concrete next steps being established.
As could be expected, Prime Minister Ratas stated that Estonia was very positive about the EU’s future – Estonia feels strong and secure and the rule of law is very important there. Estonia is supportive of the free movement of trade (particularly digital solutions to support this), positive about the enlargement of the EU and felt that countries within the union are agreed on foreign policy (e.g. sanctions on Russia). Within its period of presidency of the European Union Council, Estonia wishes to find solutions to make the union work, unite it and move forward.