Sven Mikser, Estonian Foreign Minister
Although Estonia is one of the smallest European Union Member States with its population of 1.3 million, we’re proud to hold the Presidency of the European Union, which has a population of over 500 million, and to be influencing the priorities of this large union for six months.
Maintaining and developing the relationships of the European Union with our neighbours in the east has always been a priority for Estonia, as it has for our good neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. As such, it’s no surprise that communication with those eastern partners and strengthening their ties with the European Union was one of the priorities of our Presidency in the second half of 2017.
Let me remind you that in EU jargon, the Eastern Partnership is an initiative governing the relationship of the European Union with six eastern countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Maintaining and developing relationships is more than an empty phrase, as the European Union has achieved good results with its cooperative partners, which help the ordinary people of those countries.
There is no doubt that visa-free entry to the Schengen Area is extremely important to ordinary people, and this year it expanded to the citizens of Georgia and Ukraine in addition to Moldova.
The European Union has also entered into association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These are the most developed agreements the EU has signed with third countries in its history. They bring our partners closer to the EU both politically and economically. The formula is simple: our partners adopt the acquis of the EU, and in return they gradually gain entry to the internal market of the EU. These agreements entering into force is not the end of the road: it’s just the beginning. The performance of obligations, incl. the implementation of reforms, will make it possible for our partners to demand more in the future.
I’ve visited almost all of our eastern partners as Foreign Minister since February. I can therefore say that the credibility of Estonia in the region is strong, the footprint of our actions is deep and the expectations of our partners regarding further developments in our relationships during the Estonian Presidency has been high.
The faith of several eastern partners in the “European project” and its transforming powers remains strong, and they are highly motivated to become like us. We must not let this weaken.
We want these countries to have democratic and transparent governments that respect human rights and work in the people’s, not corrupt, interests. The development of economic relationships with partner countries is extremely important, but our entrepreneurs also expect their investments to be protected and the rule of law to be effective. This is why we must focus on activities that make our societies stronger and more resistant to external and internal pressures when we plan the partnership.
During the Presidency of the European Union, Estonia has had two broader goals in regard to the partnership: firstly, to keep it in political focus in the EU; and secondly, to see it progress during our Presidency.
As the contractual and institutional relationship between the EU and its eastern partners is becoming clearer, the partnership now focuses on cooperation projects that actually improve people’s lives. It must be said that despite integration with and the support of the EU, ordinary people may not associate the need for reforms and the resulting increase in their welfare with the
EU at all. Not only does this undermine the support of people for reforms, but also overall progress towards an organisation of life that follows European values. Inadequate communication has also been a problem area where significant improvement is required.