On May 1st, 2004, right before the centennial of the first Young Estonia almanac, Estonia became a fully-fledged member of the European Union. Gustav Suits, a poet, had once famously called upon the readers of the almanac by saying, “Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans,” and with Estonia’s accession, the idea finally came to fruition. This year marks ten years of being part of the European Union for Estonia. We are ten years older and wiser, and we can now see more clearly what steps Estonia needs to take in order to fully integrate with Europe.
From the security standpoint, there are three important areas where disconnection from Russia and connection with Europe are of utmost importance.
First, the electrical networks have to be desynchronised from the Russian system and connected to the synchronised area of continental Europe. The Estonian electricity system connects the power stations in Estonia, the network operators and electricity consumers. However, the Estonian electrical system itself belongs to a larger synchronised united system BRELL, which controls the alternating current power lines that form a larger network, connecting Estonia to the neighbouring countries of Latvia and Russia, and through them also to Lithuania and Belarus. Since the end of 2006, Estonia has also been connected to Finland through the direct current undersea cable EstLink 1, which is of great symbolic significance, because it connects the Baltic and Nordic electricity systems. The EstLink 2 cable will also become operational this year. Funds have been foreseen in the EU budget for the construction of a third electricity connection between Estonia and Latvia, which should strengthen ties even more.
Connecting to Nordic states and opening electricity markets is important for the consumer, because it means having more choices; desynchronising electricity networks and new connections to the synchronisation area of continental Europe is, however, important for our energy security. Considering how an electrical system works, we can figuratively say that at the moment Russia can just turn a switch and the Baltic States will be out of power. Of course, it will also mean a black out for Russia, but the risk is still too great for us. Connecting to continental Europe will take this risk down to a minimum.
In addition, it is important for us that Latvia and Lithuania also open their electricity markets completely, so that Estonia can have access to Latvian hydro energy as well as Finnish nuclear energy. We have fulfilled the obligations we took on when joining the EU, and thanks to that, our electricity market is now on par with those of the Nordic countries. However, the same cannot be said of Lithuania and Latvia. The new Latvian prime minister confirmed at a meeting in our Parliament on the 3rd of February that they are still planning to open the markets on the 1st of April, as promised earlier. The next day, however, they announced that the new government is considering postponing the opening of the market. This would be a considerable blow to the Estonian consumer.
The second important topic is the gas market, where Estonia is interested in the construction of a gas pipeline to Finland (Baltic Connector) and the construction of an LNG terminal on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. The pipeline is important for the creation of a regional gas market, and it is also a prerequisite for the creation of alternatives to Russian gas. What will happen if there are no alternatives? This is something we should remember from the Ukraine/Russia gas price conflict. The prices skyrocketed. However, these kinds of price hikes can be avoided, if there are other sources of gas. World practice has shown that alternative providers cannot appear if the network is in the hands of one operator. Since there are funds foreseen in the EU budget both for the creation of a regional gas market as well as for building an LNG terminal, it would be very short-sighted of us to miss out on the opportunity because we are busy bickering about the terminal location. This, of course, does not mean that we would be willing to give up being the location for the new terminal without a reasonable justification; however, the most important idea here is that an alternative has to be created, as well as a gas network connection to Finland.
The third network that is currently lacking and is keeping us from completely feeling like we are part of Europe is the transportation network. Since we are in the periphery of Europe, connections to the rest of Europe are essential to us, both for the free movement of goods as well as people. This brings us to Rail Baltic. It is wonderful that the EU budget does have a part dedicated to funding the project, and it would be foolhardy not to use it because we cannot set differences aside.
There has been criticism of the assessments made to approximately evaluate how much goods and how many passengers the railway would use. Until we have a railway, however, we cannot accurately, estimate how many passengers and goods will use it in the future. At the same time, when we look at other large-scale railway projects across Europe, we can see that the actual number of users is higher than was previously estimated. We cannot carry out a study that is 100% accurate without the railway already in place. Therefore, the creation of a railway is always a political choice. If we look back in history, the creation of a railway in the Russian Empire was a political choice, as are the decisions made nowadays in China. In hindsight, both choices have proven to be good ones. There are maps that show a person’s distance from the centre according to the mobility options they have. With the creation of Rail Baltic, our geographic position would significantly improve.
In the January 30th issue of Postimees, David Satter, a journalist expelled from Russia, analyses how the Russian media talk about neighbouring countries, and he has found out that “Russia is still not ready to treat former Soviet republics as equals, as states entitled to their own opinions and points of view. They still want to maintain control to a certain degree.”This neighbour essentially still does have control over Baltic States in quite a few areas. In order for Estonia to finally be part of Europe, we have to make sure that this control is reduced.
(Published in the daily newspaper Postimees, 07.03.2014)