Estonian Foreign Policy in the Pandemic: Interview with Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets

Estonia has a reputation for being one of the most digitized societies in the world. How has this impacted your foreign policy approach, especially your promotion of human rights, free speech, and privacy in the digital sphere?

The protection and promotion of human rights, including freedom of expression, is an integral part of Estonia’s foreign policy. The digitization of society has played an important role in defining our human rights priorities. We are of the firm opinion that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online—as is also stressed in the Tallinn Agenda of the Freedom Online Coalition, adopted in 2014 in Tallinn. In order to secure a democratic and free society, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as well as the right to privacy need to be duly protected and promoted online. It is also crucial to ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society actors online—therefore, Estonia supports and contributes to the Digital Defenders Partnership fund.

Building trust in digital technologies and solutions has been one of the main pillars in Estonia’s digitalization drive, and privacy has been at the center of this process. Estonia has a well-established legal framework for both data protection as well as data governance and sharing. These legal instruments have been supported by a secure digital identity that needs to be used for authentication for any digital transaction. In addition to public services, private sector services can be accessed by a secure digital identity provided by the Estonian government. I would also like to emphasize that all digital transactions are being logged and can be tracked. Also, each person in Estonia can access the data that the government holds about them, and furthermore, people can also check who has accessed or checked their data, when, and for which purpose. This option has been introduced to guarantee that there is no invasion of privacy.

How do you intend to navigate Estonia’s relationship with Russia, especially given Russia’s recent actions to poison and subsequently detain opposition leader Alexei Navalny? How has the COVID pandemic (and especially Russia’s development of the Sputnik V vaccine) impacted Estonian-Russian relations?

It is in our best interest to have good relations with all our neighbours, including with the Russian Federation. Neighbors obviously need to talk. While speaking recently over the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, I strongly underlined this point. However, I also voiced our concerns.

Developments in Russia affect global security as well as the European security architecture. Estonia, the European Union, as well as NATO have made considerable efforts over time to improve relations with Russia, to incorporate Russia into the rules based international system as a responsible actor, but for this we need Russia’s own commitment to fully honor its international obligations, including when it comes to respect for the UN Charter and Helsinki Final Act, its obligations under the Minsk agreements, Vienna Document, and other international human rights treaties.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Estonian-Russian relations like with any other country as we all cope with restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. The development of the Sputnik V vaccine per se has not impacted Estonian-Russian relations. We have decided to purchase only those vaccines that have been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency, and have thus proven effective and safe. In case of the Sputnik V vaccine, respective assessments are still underway by the European Medicines Agency. Due to the already existing contracts for supplying the Sputnik V vaccine, we consider the delivery period to be too lengthy to let Sputnik V play a decisive role in vaccinating the Estonian population.

How do you see Estonia’s relationship with the other Baltic and Scandinavian states? How has the pandemic impacted that relationship?

Regional cooperation that advances the Nordic-Baltic area as a more competitive, sustainable, and innovative region that is attractive to businesses and people alike is our common interest. Estonia is interested in advancing the region’s practical cooperation, especially in the field of energy (with a particular focus on renewables), climate, transport, and digitalization. Even stronger ties between the countries in our region would help to further integrate our markets, bring tangible value to economies and people, as well as increase regional security.

The Nordic-Baltic cooperation, as well as cooperation between the Baltic States, has further proven its practical value through the very close and effective coordination since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Due to Estonia’s coordination in 2020, these formats managed to quickly adapt to the unprecedented situation and even intensify their work through regular online meetings. This year, the Nordic-Baltic joint work continues based on the excellent priorities set by Finland: post-COVID recovery, climate, and innovation. Lithuania, who is leading the work of the Baltic States, has set such priorities as regional security, digital transformation, green agenda, infrastructure projects, and post-COVID recovery, as this is something that concerns us all.

On multilateral organizations, your Ministry recently announced that it would apply to join the Arctic Council as an observer state. Why have you taken this step? What value would Estonia add to the Council, and how would membership in the Council aid Estonia?

Indeed, on November 9, 2020, Estonia officially submitted its application to become an Arctic Council observer. This was a thoroughly considered step, reflecting in general our strong commitment to addressing the challenges caused by climate change and contributing to the sustainable development of the Arctic. Such commitment is shared not only by our government but also by academic institutions and the private sector.

It is worth recalling that Estonia is the northernmost non-Arctic country. With our expertise, long-time experience in polar research, and inventive approach, we feel we can contribute substantially to the work of the Arctic Council. Examples of what Estonia could add to the Council include our experience and knowhow in building up a digital society.

Promoting the wider use of digital solutions in the indigenous peoples’ communities of the Arctic could substantially benefit the regions’ development. Our scientific community has research expertise in the Arctic environment, ecosystem, the effects of climate change, and constructing energy-saving houses. A number of our companies deal with clean technology and clean energy and produce output usable in Arctic conditions.

You told Estonian Public Broadcasting that you would take action in response to Finland’s tougher border protocols back in February. How has your thinking evolved on this issue? What actions have you taken so far?

The current COVID-19 crisis is extremely complex. While the main aim of the governments is to protect our citizens and public health, we are all concerned about the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic, including the functioning of the society and economy and how the crisis affects the everyday life of our people.

We very much appreciate our COVID-related close cooperation with Finland. As our countries and economies are closely interlinked, travel-related restrictions introduced at the end of January have also affected the movement of cross-border workers between Estonia and Finland. It also means that thousands of Estonians who are working there have limited possibilities to see their families living at home in Estonia since January. Solving this issue remains our priority and we shall continue discussions to find solutions that would help restore movement of cross-border workers as soon as possible.

Over the past months, close contacts and discussions have taken place between our government members, including myself, as well as at working level. We have proposed additional trust measures for Finland’s consideration, which would contribute to finding a viable solution while minimising travel-related public health risks. We plan to continue this work to find a joint solution. We very much hope that the use of national digital certificates and the EU Digital Green Certificate for which both Estonia and Finland are participating in the pilot program, will also facilitate achieving this objective. Estonia has already introduced its solution to Finland also bilaterally.

On border restrictions, Estonia continues to require a 10-day quarantine for foreigners entering the country, even from countries within the Schengen Area. What conditions might prompt Estonia to relax border restrictions, and what do you think that the Schengen Area might look like post-pandemic?

Public health is a priority, and this is why we require self-isolation when arriving from high-risk countries. The period of self-isolation can be shortened with two negative tests. Like other European countries, we have to proceed with caution until the infection rates have stabilized.

At the same time, the long-term impact of the restrictions on the economy and the functioning of the society has to be taken into account. To preserve the option of essential travel we have applied exemptions—for transport, healthcare providers, military cooperation, and more. After the first negative test result before or upon arrival, people can perform urgent duties and attend an essential family occasion.

Estonia has already taken the decision to lift the self-isolation requirement for those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. In the long term, the certificates that make it possible to check if a person has been vaccinated, has recovered, or taken a negative test will play a decisive role in travelling and relaxing border restrictions. Work is ongoing on the national, EU, and global level to develop digital certificates that can be checked and verified across borders. Our national digital vaccination certificates are operational as of the end of April, and can be conveniently made compatible with the incoming EU Digital Green Certificate. To restore travel while the virus is still with us, we need to move forward with solutions that make secure border crossing efficient, ensure vaccinations, and make trustworthy certificates.

A recent article in The Economist criticized the European Union for acting too slowly on vaccine development. Do you share this concern? What do you think about rules that prohibit vaccines from leaving the bloc?

We strongly support and believe in the European Union’s collective effort. The EU’s vaccine strategy has ensured that all member states have access to vaccines, and as a small country, we highly appreciate these efforts. Still, it is urgent to accelerate the authorization, production, and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination because all hope of slowing the spread of the virus is linked to vaccination.

The response to the global pandemic must be comprehensive and requires synergies and good coordination between a number of different policies. There is, of course, a lot more that the EU and Estonia are doing to fight the global pandemic. For example, the EU has been one of the most generous donors with 850 million euros to the COVAX Facility — a mechanism that is best placed to ensure that high-income countries finance the vaccines and the deployment of vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. Estonia supported the COVAX facility with 70,000 euros.

As an additional step, the EU has strengthened the COVID-19 vaccines export transparency and authorization mechanism to preserve the security of our supply chains by introducing the principles of reciprocity and proportionality as additional criteria before authorizing exports. Under the strengthened mechanism, export authorizations should be granted where they do not pose a threat to the security of supply of vaccines and their components in the European Union. While the EU recognizes the importance of global value chains, it also reaffirms that companies must ensure the predictability of their vaccine production and respect contractual delivery deadlines.

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