Sven Mikser: “It's a matter of principle that countries have a sovereign right to take decisions regarding their geopolitical orientation and destiny”
Estonia's Minister of Foreign Affairs on agenda for Council of EU presidency, Eastern Partnership summit and UN peacekeepers for Eastern Ukraine
Estonia holds the Presidency at the Council of the European Union from July through December 2017. The Ukrainian Week spoke to Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during his visit to Kyiv about Estonia’s position on the proposals regarding peacekeepers in the conflict area in eastern Ukraine, expectations regarding the next Eastern Partnership Summit, as well as Ukraine-Estonia and Ukraine-EU relations.
What are the goals of your visit to Ukraine? What did you discuss with President Poroshenko at your meeting on September 12?
First of all, the goal was to pay a bilateral visit to Ukraine, which is a very important partner for Estonia, an important target country for our development cooperation. We have identified Eastern Partnership (EaP) as one of the priorities for our Presidency of the Coun- cil of the European Union. So it was important to visit Ukraine during the Presidency. The calendar of bilateral visits between Estonia and Ukraine has been extremely tight: there have been a number of bilateral visits, and prime ministers have made their visits. But I decided that for me, as a foreign affairs minister, it is also important to visit Ukraine. This one actually coincided with one of the EaP events, the Media Partnership Conference, in which I took part.
I met with President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Hroisman, and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
The two main broad topics on the agenda are the security situation, particularly in eastern Ukraine, the most recent developments there and the progress of attempts to build a sustainable solution. Obviously, Estonia is a very firm supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We also work hard to keep
these issues on the table at various international organisations so that they are not pulled off the table by new crises in the world.
Since the aggression against Ukraine is still ongoing and the illegal annexation of Crimea has not been reversed, we need to keep supporting Ukraine in its endeavours and maintain strong pressure on Russia as long as it has not returned to an internationally acceptable framework.
The second topic we discussed is the reform process. One aspect is the macroeconomic agenda. It’s ambitious and is not expected to be universally popular. Some of these reforms are painful initially but absolutely important in the longer run. We spoke about the reforms of the pension and education systems. Also, the reform of the judiciary is critically important, as is the fight against corruption. These will help promote Ukraine as a country with a good investment climate.
Ukraine has reached important milestones in cooperation with the EU: the visa-free travel agreement, as well as the Association Agreement and DCFTA. Now we have reached an implementation phase and it’s important that Ukraine be able to demonstrate that it really is safe for investors from the EU and beyond.
What is Estonia's position regarding the peacekeeping mission for eastern Ukraine?
I talked about that with President Poroshenko at length. Obviously, it was proposed by Ukraine very early on into the conflict: that there should be international peacekeepers. I absolutely believe that if this idea materialises, the peacekeepers should have access to the whole of the occupied territory, not just the contact line. The mission should not serve to legitimise the de facto separatist authorities. That should not be accepted. Also, we should be careful to see that Russia doesn’t use this as a way of creating another frozen conflict. These are the main principles that need to be observed.
You mentioned EaP as a priority during your presidency at the Council of the EU. What would be your goals or accomplishments to speak about at the upcoming summit in Brussels in November?
Fortunately, we have some success to report. We now have the AA and DCFTA, as well as the visa-free travel agreements with the three more advanced members of the group. That’s very positive.
A lot still needs to be done in terms of giving real content to the AA. The implementation phase will probably not be as visible as the visa-free travel. But in the longer term, the opening-up of the EU markets to goods from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, easier access to those markets, is a way to improve competitiveness and the lives of people, perhaps even more significantly than those accomplishments that are already visible.
That’s something within the framework of the initiative called “20 deliverables for 2020”. I think that this will be one of the real deliverables.
When it comes to the final declaration of the summit, we are in the early phases of drafting right now. We are working very hard to see that it addresses all concerns and expectations. We know there are some difficulties to overcome in coming to agreement both among EU Member States, as well as among some EaP countries. We all have recollections of how it was with the Summit in Riga. (Two EaP countries, Belarus and Armenia, did not want to sign the final declaration because of the wording about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Another problem was the opposition of some EU Member States to the phrasing about European aspirations of EaP countries – Ed.)
But I hope that, with that experience in mind, we can avoid some of the difficult parts this time.
When it comes to the issue of European aspirations of EaP countries, particularly the three that have expressed them very clearly, there can be no falling back from the position that was expressed in Riga – we have to be looking forward, not moving backward. That is a very clear principle.
Do you expect a lot of resistance to that?
Obviously, there are differences, different points of departure when countries gather at the table. But I don’t see anything that can’t be overcome in the process of drafting. We also want to make the document available to EaP partners because it’s going to be a joint declaration. There needs to be time to consider and discuss the input from EaP countries.
Declarations are important outcomes of such meetings. But I think that in the longer perspective the implementation of AAs and DCFTAs, and specific deliverables in important areas, such as connectivity, energy policy and visa-free regime, are no less important than the exact wording of the declaration.
After the visa-free travel for Ukraine, next goals are being discussed here in terms of further European integration. Given the tensions within the EU about its future and policy about aspiring countries, where do you see potential for the most progress for Ukraine?
There are important areas where I see the possibility of deepening what we have. It’s very important that you are able to demonstrate success in reforming in all the sectors I mentioned: the socio-economic agenda, the fight against corruption. The more you demonstrate that you are moving ahead, the less scepticism there will be.
Obviously, there are also challenges that are internal to the EU, including the soul-searching after the Brexit vote and negotiations during the exit of one of its largest members, something that is unprecedented. So the EU’s attention span is somewhat limited.
I think there is a possibility of moving forward in the Digital Single Market. There are also a number of
Sven Mikser was born in 1973 in Tartu, Estonia. He graduated from the University of Tartu in 1996 majoring in English language and literature. Mr. Mikser was MP at the Estonian Parliament from 1999 to 2002. He served as Minister of Defense in the Siim Kallas Cabinet from 2002 to 2003, and Minister of Defense in the Taavi Roivas Cabinet in 2014-2015. From 2007 to 2011, he was chairman of the Social Democratic Party's faction and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. From 2008 to 2010, Mr. Mikser served as Vice President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2016.
other areas where we can think creatively and arrive at positive outcomes.
Promotion of the Digital Single Market is one of the priorities in Estonia's presidency. What are the others?
There’s a full legislative agenda on the table. We have identified the factors where want to see progress.
With regard to the horizontal priorities in various fields, EaP is one of those in international relations. We are engaging those partners in a number of ministerial meetings. We had Minister Klimkin and other EaP ministers of foreign affairs in Tallinn for the Gymnich informal meeting of foreign ministers of EU Member States. We had ministers attending the informal meeting of justice and home affairs ministers, as well as conferences and forums on business community, civil society. This is one of the horizontal priorities: we want to make sure that the EaP program is seen a priority area for the whole of the EU, not just the Member States from Eastern Europe. It is important both from the security and cooperation perspective; it is important that it doesn’t disappear from the agenda after our presidency.
As for the agenda for the Digital Single Market, it concerns digital issues more broadly – free movement of information, which we want to see one day emerging as a basic freedom of the EU. Also, the cyber security dimension is a very important aspect of the digital agenda.
Then, there is security in the broader sense. We have seen boundaries between internal and external security becoming less and less clear. There is an indivisibility of security in the geographical sense: developments that happen very far from home affect your security and prosperity immediately. These include the EU’s internal security: how we address issues such as terrorism and organised crime, violent extremism, radicalisation in our own societies. As well as external security, from the defence of the EU’s external borders to addressing the causes of crises, the EU development policy, how we support the building of resilience in the societies and countries that are fragile and prone to crises.
In terms of cyber security, you have faced a number of attacks on your crucial systems. Ukraine has suffered that as well. Do you see a space where the two countries could cooperate with mutual benefits?
We already do in a very meaningful way. The relevant agencies are cooperating in cyber defence, in protection of our infrastructure, communications that are used to deliver services via the internet. That is one of the upcoming issues of the day. And no longer is this sphere isolated. When we talk about fighting off information wars and hostile propaganda, that has a very strong cyber dimension. The same goes for the protection of critical infrastructure.
We also share our expertise when it comes to e-government and digital platforms in making the government more transparent and directly accountable to people. When it comes to fighting corruption, that’s a challenge for every country. But the more developed a country is, the more you can rely on the cyber platforms, e-governance solutions. The more transparent the operation of the government, the less space for corruption there is. It improves the legitimacy of the authorities on the local and national levels. And it’s good for people since it saves the country a lot of money. It also makes the country much more attractive as a place to do business.
The Estonian Centre of Eastern Partnership we host in Tallinn is running important projects. We have an e-Governance Academy that is cooperating with all the partners in Europe’s east and south. They are doing some very promising projects with some countries in Africa, Latin America. That’s how a small country like Estonia can have an impact beyond its reach and size. The traditional exports of goods can be limited by size – you can’t have a huge impact on geographically large and distant markets such as China, Japan or many African countries. But when it comes to platforms for digital services, e-governance solutions, you can easily adapt to various circumstances, as well as scale them up. We’ve identified that as a way to punch above our weight.
Lithuania is discussing a “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine. What is your position on it?
However we call it, it’s absolutely clear that we will have to continue to support Ukraine so as to see that you get through the very difficult period in the history of your country when you have to reform at a very high pace and fight off an aggression at the same time.
Some of the reforms we are talking about are difficult to implement even in peacetime. They are so much more difficult when you have to fight for the integrity and independence of your country. We simply cannot afford the enemy to win that conflict.
It’s morally wrong. It’s a matter of principle that countries have a sovereign right to take decisions regarding their geopolitical orientation and destiny. No third party has a veto on that. And that is exactly what the Kremlin is trying to impose. So it is a matter of principle.
But also it is a matter of existential interest: should your enemy prevail, the consequences would be absolutely catastrophic for the whole European security architecture. So it is vital that we as the EU, as well as a community of democratic nations around the world more broadly, support you and help Ukraine to come out of this stronger than it was. And maintain pressure on the aggressor.
There is practical material help, as well as moral support, the good advice and practices. We are ready to do all that. Also, we have to see that this is dominant at important tables in the EU and in international organisations.
It is never going to be easy. But we have seen in the not too distant past that truth will prevail in the end. Injustice will be reversed in the long run. So it is very important that we maintain the resolve, the united front, and be there for you in various ways.
WE HAVE SEEN BOUNDARIES BETWEEN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL SECURITY BECOMING LESS AND LESS CLEAR. THERE IS AN INDIVISIBILITY OF SECURITY IN THE GEOGRAPHICAL SENSE: DEVELOPMENTS THAT HAPPEN VERY FAR FROM HOME AFFECT YOUR SECURITY AND PROSPERITY IMMEDIATELY