Eric Maurice, EUobserver, December 21 2017
BRUSSELS - During its EU presidency Estonia made member states focus on the digital revolution in the "broadest political way" and tried to find a pivotal balance between competing groups of member states on the highly-contentious issue of refugee relocation, the country's EU minister told EUobserver.
As Estonia's six-month mandate at the head of the EU Council ends on 31 December, Matti Maasikas said in an interview the bloc feels "more confident" than when it took over the reins in the summer.
"Things have been moving and our unity has been maintained and even strengthened," he said, even if Brexit is "a political process of a scale with the potential to overshadow many other things."
He noted that political uncertainties in Germany also had "a potential to slow down some things, but less that we may have feared".
He admitted however that "on the big issues concerning the future of Europe, there is not much progress. Berlin's response is still being waited for."
Maasikas pointed out that digital issues were Estonia's "particular horizontal priority", and that the seminar for EU leaders organised in Tallinn in September gave them time to reflect on them and all the consequences.
"Digital is the 'new Sunday', or the 'new pancake'. Everybody loves it!" he quipped.
But he pointed out that the topic was less easy to make progress on "when it gets to particularities of the legislative files and digital single market."
"I want to see the person who can claim that he or she understands everything or can foresee all the consequences of the profound consequences of the digital transformation," he said.
"I want to see the person who knows how to tax digital nomads in the coming decades or how to maintain their loyalty to the nation state or their national government."
The Estonian minister admitted that an EU digital market was "not easy to achieve" because "member states traditions and anxieties are very different" when it comes to free flow of data or the taxation of the digital economy.
He said EU leaders "understand pretty well" cyber security issues and that one of the main challenges was "equipping our citizens, our kids, the persons losing their jobs with the skills needed."
Consensus on posted workers controversy
When it took the presidency on 1 July, Estonia inherited the reform of the posted workers directive, in which the new French president Emmanuel Macron had immediately introduced new demands.
"In May we would have been happy with the Maltese proposal," Maasikas said, referring to the compromise put on the table by the previous EU presidency, before Macron was elected.
In October, he noted, member states "arrived with a bigger consensus [than we had feared]," with only four member states opposing the text.
In particular, the duration of the posting of workers in another country was limited to 12 months, as required by France, but with a possible six-month extension in specific cases.
"I must appreciate the way the French government conducted this, not only putting pressure on [our] presidency, but also working actively with other member states," the Estonian minister noted.
"That's the way of doing things".
He insisted that his country "have been duly carrying on all social files," leading to the launch of the so-called EU social pillar at a summit in Gothenburg.
"The deepening of the social pillar would be much easier if simultaneously we took steps to strengthen the single market, especially in the field of services," he pointed out, mentioning better paid jobs and better access to jobs.
But he observed that the social dimension of the EU had "a potential to create tensions" between member states with different traditions and views, and with few direct EU powers on these issue.
Besides digital, its pet issue, the biggest task for Estonia was to manage ongoing negotiations on EU's migration policy.
Maasikas noted that the migration crisis is "such a volatile crisis" that it has "always the potential to disrupt" the functioning of the EU.
He said that in recent months, good work has been done by the EU, and "notably Italy", which took the lead in negotiating with Libya measures to reduce the number of people crossing the Mediterranean sea.
Migration crisis is more than 'relocation'
But as the EU summit on 14 December showed, deep divergences remain between member states on the EU's longer term policies, with the reform of the 'Dublin' asylum system and the relocation of asylum seekers being the main blocking points.
The minister insisted that "it would not be wise to reduce the whole managing of the migration crisis to this one legislative file - and from that file, to this one issue of 'relocation'."
"Building the new European asylum system is so much more than just that," he added.
He admitted however that relocation was "such a controversial issue that you need to deal with it with an extreme delicacy."
He noted that memories of the summer and autumn of 2015, when the peak of the migration crisis led to a divisive vote to launch the relocation mechanism were "still very fresh".
"You don't want to rush into pushing through some things and refreshing those memories," he said.
During the six months of its presidency, Maasikas explained, Estonia had a thorough round of consultation with all member states and produced a document that "reflects the state of play, the point of balance according to us."
The paper, the minister said, describes the possible steps in the event of a crisis.
"And yes, in a severe crisis situation, the issue of assistance in the form of relocation is one of the possible tools," he said.
Maasikas said his country, a Baltic state, didn't want to pigeonhole itself in the relocation controversy, which has pitted mostly eastern members states against others.
"In Estonia, 'Northern Europe' becomes unnoticeably 'Central Europe'," he said, quoting Johannes Gabriel Granoe, a 20th century Finnish geographer.
State of mind
Asked what the EU presidency, Estonia's first since it joined the EU in 2004, changed for the country, he said that it made Estonians "know [their] European way much better."
"There is clearly a sense of responsibility. This is our duty, we need to do this for Europe," he said.
Asked whether a first presidency was a rite of passage for member states, he said that actually "the presidency does not matter that much anymore."
Maasikas told the story of a man he once met, who had been living on an island for 10 years. The man said he had no problem integrating into the island community, but that "in order to understand all the details you need to be born on the island."
The minister compared Estonia to the new islander and noted that "founding member states have the advantages" of knowing better the intricates of the EU machinery because they have always been in the bloc.
"It was such a professional pleasure to see how the Luxembourg presidency [in 2015] dealt with the inter-institutional agreement," he said.
He pointed out however that "being a new member, being [a] periphery [country] is a 'state of mind'."
"In order to actively participate in the EU debate, to successfully pursue your interest and to perform your duty as a responsible member state, you don't need to be born on the island," he said.
Estonian presidency leaves 'more confident' EU