H.E. Kaja Tael, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the EU:
Our digital pillar is in all walks of life
Estonian Presidency has certain plans to advance paperless bureaucracy in the EU
Maria Koleva, Brussels
10 June, 2017
Close-up: Ambassador Kaja Tael is a Permanent Representative of Estonia to the EU since 2016. Prior to this, she was Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to Berlin. In 2006, she became Undersecretary for European Affairs at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tallinn. She was an Estonian ambassador in London from 2001 to 2006. From 1995 to 1998, she worked as an advisor for the Estonian President Lennart Meri. Before that, for five years Kaja Tael was the head of the Estonian State Cultural Institute.
- Ambassador Tael, Estonia will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 July. What items will top its agenda?
- First of all, we have identified the files which will be left on our table and that we by ourselves will put on the table, and we have categorised them under four big headings. These are an open Europe where the core is trade and internal market and of course digital single market; then a safe and secure Europe, where the Estonian focus lies mostly on border protection and developing modern instruments which we need to implement while guarding our borders, the databases and the interoperability of the databases are important for us. We have also a separate heading on digital Europe although digital Europe actually penetrates all walks of life nowadays but we can talk more concretely about free movement of data. The fourth one that nobody can do without is sustainable and inclusive Europe where we are accenting on the very important climate and energy files which are on the table at the moment, especially the Paris agreement on climate change which is our international commitment. And then comes a sort of a ‘soft’ side of the society as such – the social pillar. The Commission recently has come out with social proposals which we all have been waiting for a long time.
- Was it very challenging to be ready with all arrangements in a shorter period as the country initially should have taken the helm of the Presidency in the first half of 2018?
- Estonians are well known as planners and we started our preparations a very long time ago. When it arrived at last, eventhough six months earlier, it was almost perfect for us. But still we have lost certain aspects. We are really not happy that we cannot celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia which falls under 2018 and to combine those two events. We had certain plans to advance digital government or paperless bureaucracy in the EU, and we had great hopes for it. But as the European Union is not digitally very advanced, I mean the institutions here in Brussels, so six months earlier we cannot do everything that we planned. In this respect we have lost a bit.
- Could you please give more details on the Estonian Presidency’s motto ‘Unity through balance’, announced by PM Ratas in Brussels three weeks ago?
- You have to approach this slogan with the logo of Estonian Presidency which has several explanations. Among other things, it is actually combined from the elements of the binary code which we use in all computers, but it is not self explanatory for very many viewers. One of the ways to underscore the meaning of the slogan ‘Unity through balance’ because when you look at the logo you understand that it is like a scale and two dots – it can go this way or that way but we will underline the unity of our Member States in the present challenging times.
- What will be the approach during the Brexit negotiations that will start exactly during the Estonian Presidency, and in your view would it be a tough divorce?
- It is certain that there is nothing easy about Brexit. It is not a process that you can actually negotiate for a very happy ending. It is certainly clear for the European Union and probably will be clear for the UK that the end result of the negotiations will actually be a situation which in many ways is less perfect than the present UK membership. The EU has its chief negotiator Mr Michel Barnier and the role of the Presidency will be to provide a social space for the Member States to receive information and to give their input to Mr Barnier, so it is our job to plan for General Affairs Councils and Corepers to put it on the agenda.
- As the ‘quotas’ on migration are still a knotty issue, should this system be changed with something more workable, as even states that acclaimed the proposal are not so enthusiastic on the relocation front?
- You are asking about the changing of the system, but the sad truth is that there is no system at the moment. This is an ad hoc solution to a 2015 migration crisis and we still deal with the consequences. We try to relocate people from Italy and Greece and some Member States are still claiming that this system in their eyes is even not legal and have brought the case to the court. First of all, we need to establish a system which is really satisfactory to everybody and everybody needs to agree. Many people have said: “You cannot force solidarity.” Solidarity is something that needs to be implemented as part of being a member of the European Union and it has been written into the founding treaties that Member States assist each other in the moment of crisis. We need to work out a crisis mechanism in case of the huge wave of refugees or migrants into the EU. And we are not very far from those discussions, but I have not an easy answer in this respect.
- Does the Presidency plan to put on the table the issue of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen?
- It is scheduled for a revision which is a regular process. In autumn, there will be discussion under our Presidency if Bulgaria and Romania are ready in the eyes of the Member States to join the Schengen area.
- Estonia is strikingly digital-driven. What are the concrete ideas of the Presidency for boosting digital Europe?
- It’s a very complex issue. As I mentioned already, in our eyes the digital dimension is something which penetrates all walks of life. When we talk about the legislative proposals on the table, in amazingly big number of the files we are working with there is a digital aspect. The Estonian Presidency will prioritise these files and focus on digital aspects of the file which usually people don’t think about as mostly digital tasks. I could just name some aspects of taxation, or trade agreements, or customs, or not to speak about contracts law, and of course copy rights and telecommunications. There are certainly more than 50 even 100 files where we try to advance the digital dimension. But this is only one part. The other part is to raise the awareness of people and for this purpose we are arranging a number of events and conferences in Estonia. This topic will be on the agenda of many informal meetings of the Council, also many events which are meant to better network with our partners from Eastern Partnership countries but with African countries as well, as digital dimension is an aspect of development cooperation with this continent and the awareness raising policy will be quite highly focused during EU-Africa summit. As I already noted, the third pillar will present for the rest of the EU few showcases of paperless government.
- What is on the Presidency’s programme in connection with counter-terrorism and making life of ordinary citizens more secure?
- In this context I’d like to mention one of the most important files - the new Cybersecurity Strategy, that will be put on the table by the Commission in autumn and we are quite ready to advance the discussions with the Member States about certain aspects here. The defence dimension of the European Union is also something on which was given a boost and there is a pillar on EU-NATO cooperation, which we would like to bring forward as it is very much in our interest. Estonia being one of the NATO allies and also fulfills the alliance commitment to spend 2% of GDP, we actually spend even more nowadays. We would like to work with the Member States to promote this goal because although the Commission is now setting up a new Defence Action Plan and new Defence Fund, in the end many of those assents are still national and our goal is to raise this awareness in the EU.
- Can this close defence cooperation within the EU question somehow the role of NATO?
- There has been a joint declaration between EU and NATO leaders stating the goal for this cooperation, and I think we can put those fears really behind us. Nobody in the EU or NATO is willing to duplicate any aspect of defence tasks, so we should concentrate on the added value of the EU which usually relies more on the civilian matters. Civilian military cooperation is something that is very much needed in most conflicts over the world, so I wouldn’t worry about duplication.
- Are the concerns of central and eastern European countries justified that introducing multi-speed lanes in the EU will have divisive effect rather than strengthening unity?
- There is such a concern and it all depends on how we play it. By definition, when you are advancing in multiple speeds, there will be Member States that will choose a slower lane and are going to be less and less connected with the rest. At the same time there are goals for the whole of the EU which of course work for more connectedness, I mean in infrastructure, in cohesion policy. We all have goals where the main aim is really the cohesion of the European Union, so to run away at very different speeds to very different goals will also from my point of view be something which can be harmful in the EU. But there is another approach which says that multispeed can be also interpreted in the way where we share the same goals, but some Member States for certain reasons decide not yet to jump on board. And the Eurozone is actually a perfect example here. There is a goal for almost every Member State nowadays when the UK will not be a member then we only have Denmark with a permanent derogation, everybody else is really highly committed to join the euro. This is a perfect example of multi-speed Europe with shared goal but with different tactics going about it. The proposal is only the Commission’s White Paper and we haven’t taken any decision about different scenarios and most probably none of these scenarios will be implemented in a purely theoretical way. I think it’s useful to remain vigilant or cautious about multi-speed Europe but for me personally it should not be something that we have to be scared of.
- What creative attraction will Estonia present at the Justus Lipsius building of the Council in Brussels for its semester?
- I’m afraid you will have to wait until 1 July. It’s something that has to do with digital, 360 degree perspective and it’s something you need to see with your own eyes.
- What of the Estonian culture and art wealth will be shown in Brussels during the Presidency?
- It will be a diverse programme, but the focus will be on music. Estonia is rather well known for the classical music. We have some modern composers who have really been very successful and popular. Arvo Part is the most performed contemporary composer in the world. We are also rather famous for a choir culture and the best Estonian male choir will perform in Brussels. There will also be jazz, pop and folk concerts. Art projects will take place not only in Brussels but also in the biggest capitals of Europe. There will be street art and digital graffiti projects among others shows.