Editorials

Is EU’s foreign policy heading towards “Estonization”?

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, during a meeting at Brussels Airport, a day after the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 28 June 2024.
© EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL   |   European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, during a meeting at Brussels Airport, a day after the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 28 June 2024.

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As Estonia’s Kaja Kallas is set to take over the top EU diplomat job from Josep Borrell, some expect a EU foreign policy more focused – and tougher – on Russia.  

No “cucumber season” in Estonia this year

Summer in the Estonian media is often referred to as the "cucumber season" – what is called “slow news season” in English, or “pickled cucumber” season in other languages – a time when news is sparse. Not this time. The prospect of a major political change following the European elections has been a topic of analysis for months.

While during the winter Kaja Kallas had expressed interest in becoming the next NATO Secretary General, by summer media reports were confident that the current Estonian prime minister would swap her now contentious position for the role of High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Kallas's personal rating in Estonia had plummeted following a scandal involving her husband's business ties with Russia, compounded by an economic crisis and forced tax hikes that contradicted her Reform Party’s pre-election promises. By May, her popularity was at 18%, having halved over the year, and the Reform Party lost a seat in the European Parliament elections. But in Europe Kallas still remained quite popular.

Despite the need for her candidacy, along with Ursula von der Leyen and António Costa, to be confirmed, discussions about Kallas's move to Europe were treated as nearly certain by many. This partly explained the defeat of Estonian social democrat and former Minister of Culture Indrek Saar in his bid for PACE Secretary General; two Estonians in high European positions simultaneously seemed excessive to some countries.

The expectation of Kallas's appointment strengthened further after Politico reported that six negotiators from France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain planned to put her candidacy to a vote. The only potential obstacle seen by Estonian analysts was how Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni would react.

On the eve of the vote, Meloni, leader of Italy's far-right, was cited as a potential hurdle to Kallas’s ascent to the top of European politics. Meloni, who criticized the negotiators' agreement and argued that both Italy and the conservative voice representing the third-largest political force in the European Parliament (ECR) deserved more consideration, stated:

«The European institutions, in the past, were never designed in a logic of majority and opposition. They were thought of as neutral subjects […] Thus the top positions, president of the Council, of the Commission, of the Parliament, Highest Representative for foreign affairs and security policy, have normally been entrusted taking into account the groups with the largest size – and therefore taking into account the electoral response – regardless of possible majority or opposition logics». 

But despite some principled opposition, Kallas’s candidacy was given the green light, and she now awaits approval from the European Parliament.

Kaja Kallas’ appointment, a “done deal” in Estonia even before the EU bodies made a decision

Even before the final decision, Kallas’ partners in Estonia’s ruling coalition hailed her appointment as a historic achievement. “Once again, Estonia, through the work of its talented people, has demonstrated a world-class achievement, far exceeding its weight category,” wrote Minister of Education Kristina Kallas from the “Estonia 200” party.

Although Kaja Kallas mentioned that the Reform Party would elect a new leader at a congress on July 14, her party members did not wait that long: a candidate for the new prime minister was proposed almost immediately – current Minister of Climate Kristen Michal.

Thus, Estonia settled on new appointments before all democratic procedures related to the appointment of high-ranking European officials were completed. The rush is understandable: uncertainty about the future prime minister has delayed necessary but painful political decisions, primarily related to Estonia’s budget deficit and the need to reduce a two-billion-euro shortfall. Even coalition politicians describe the state budget as critical, and Kristen Michal is expected to take radical measures, given his previous role as Minister of Economic Affairs.

Some in Estonia, however, were displeased with the rush to confirm Kallas before democratic procedures were followed. Jana Toom, an MEP from the Centre Party, expressed her frustration that the leaders of six countries did not even pretend to involve the European Parliament, which technically approves the candidates and confirms the Commission's composition after hearings. “Last time, we sent home two candidates,” she reminded.

“Estonianization“ of the European Union?

Analysts expect that, as an Eastern European representative, Kallas will prioritize policies to contain Russia and support Ukraine. Kallas herself leaves no doubt about this. “The EU’s foreign policy has significantly strengthened since the full-scale war in Ukraine began. I want to continue working to make us even stronger” she said.

At the same time, there are opinions in Estonia according to which the country should reconsider the far-from-reality strategy of its star officials to 'exhaust Russia', as Estonia itself is depleting faster; however, this point of view is not predominant among the Estonian establishment.

“Will Kallas handle Borrell’s job? Well, it depends on how you measure it. In terms of media coverage, Kaja will surpass Josep,” says Jana Toom. “Let’s hope we won’t be ashamed of these media occasions. You can tell the residents of Nursipalu that the people of Võru County are nasty, and nothing will come of it. But such sparks are unnecessary in heated international politics,” Toom said, recalling the prime minister’s rather tactless remarks about the residents of Southeast Estonia unhappy with the construction of a military training ground near the Russian border.

“Appointing Kaja Kallas to a high post will mean a lot for Estonia. For a small state, especially with the inevitable ‘Eastern European’ label, it’s crucial to make such a statement at this level. Even though the position is largely ceremonial, as the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has less influence than the Estonian prime minister. But the person in this role can set certain vectors,” says the host of socio-political programs at Estonian Public Broadcasting Andrei Titov.

From his perspective, there are valid concerns that the focus may shift exclusively to the Russian direction, while issues like illegal immigration are no less important to Southern European countries. At the same time, he believes the caricature of the outgoing Estonian prime minister eating Russians for breakfast instead of porridge is unfair. “We owe this epithet to Politico, if I’m not mistaken. Thanks to them, it stuck, and Kaja Kallas even joked on Instagram, posting a picture of her morning porridge to show that there were no Russians in it. There’s nothing in her rhetoric towards Russia and Putin that any Estonian politician couldn’t say, and sometimes she even softens the tone,” says Titov.

For example, when a Reform Party MP recently called for reducing the use of the Russian language in the public sphere, dubbing it the “enemy’s language,” Kaja Kallas, in an interview with Titov on Radio 4, admitted the statement was unfortunate and emphasized the importance of providing information in people's native languages.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov referred to changes in EU foreign policy as “Estonianization”. “The most ardent Russophobes have already been designated as future leaders of EU structures. This is sad,” Lavrov said.

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