What If Estonians Weren’t in the European Union?

Being in the European Union has become something that we take for granted. Something that seems to have always been the case. We consider it normal. It has grown to become a part of us. And when something has become a natural part of existence, it is normally no longer questioned why things are as they are and what life would be like if we weren’t where we are – in the European Union. But what if we ask those questions and conduct a thought experiment? Just so we could better understand and assess our present and our future.

We, Estonians, also had Eurosceptics and EU opponents – from individuals to a major party. By now, for some reason, they have disappeared, become unnoticeable or adapted to provide constructive criticism.

In order to recognise the present, we must first remind ourselves of our population and geopolitical location – a country that has an average population, located in the periphery of Europe, on the border of a conflict of civilisations, adjacent to the Russian (Soviet) empire, with a diminutive economy, without significant natural resources.

Regardless of our Estonian pride of gaining independence and our desire to see ourselves as Europeans, we – both the state and the people – bore the mark “post-Soviet”. I have experienced this personally and it really has not faded away to this day. Only two months ago, a security guard in the Council of Europe greeted me in Russian with a kind smile. It is, however, obvious that overcoming this would have been and will be several times slower and arduous on our own.

We take pride in being a member of NATO, which is better protected than ever in terms of national security. Indeed, but to think that NATO would have taken us under their umbrella without the soft security provided by the European Union would have been and still is naive. NATO did not need to take such a geopolitical risk. We might have been able to explain the fact that we definitely need them in theory but it would have been more than difficult in practice.

It was clear from the start that large and influential circles in Russia considered the liberation of the Baltic States as a historical mishap, an abnormality born in a situation where Russia was weak, a mistake that should have been corrected as soon as possible. In the light of our current experience and the make-up of our population, Estonia would likely have been in a situation and under pressure far worse than I care to imagine.

Without the economic and financial support of the European Union, we would be approximately 20% poorer than we are today. Thus, one of the motivating factors of foreign residents’ loyalty would carry significantly less weight. Still, we must not oversimplify things – wealth does not make anyone loyal or a European, for that matter, in terms of what they think and do.

In addition to increased economic welfare, we have quietly adopted many values, the political culture, state governance practices and social self-organisation characteristic to Europe. We have become so used to these that we have started to take these for granted. These are things most highly appreciated by people who do not have them – liberty, democracy, rule of law, respect for rights and freedoms. It might be somewhat optimistic to think that we would have reached and adopted these values anyway as a natural result of our internal development. Even if this had occurred, the process would not have been so fast.

It wasn’t long ago when Estonia was often talked about as a small angry one-problem state. Or at least a state at risk of becoming one. Without the European Union we would probably still be suffering under the burden of our national complexes. The scope of people who listen to and understand us would be many times smaller.

The European Union is not only a common economic space but also a cultural space. Through cooperation with European institutions and thousands of Estonians working there, we have unnoticeably adopted the European working culture and world view, which would not have happened without the European Union. The development of our economic, legal, political and social professional language has been spurred by the status of Estonian as an official language of the European Union, which would obviously not have happened without the European Union.

The world became wider and more diverse for us. Each person found something of their own and something that interests them. We actually see others as individuals and are more understanding and tolerant towards other cultures and different people. If we did not have this openness or had less of it, it would be replaced by xenophobia, intolerance and prejudice. We would have a hard time ourselves and others wouldn’t really want to have anything to do with us either. Our cultural, scientific and social life would be significantly poorer and monotonous – simply dull.

We take the free movement of labour and capital for granted. But how would things look like if we didn’t have all that? In order to travel somewhere as a tourist, for a visit or to work, you would need a visa or work and residence permits etc. This is precisely how it was less than only ten years ago. You do not need to be very old to remember that. You had to apply, wait and pay for visas and permits, all this while being politely heard but nevertheless feeling certain distrust.

One must also not forget that the European Union, in addition to many other things, is also a customs union. Even if we were to assume that Estonian economy, proudly on its own, would have miraculously achieved the present success, we would still need to pay customs duties to enter the European market and do business there. Additionally, operating on a common market requires uniform regulations and people who know these regulations. To think that we would have had the strength to get to know and adopt these on our own would be simple-minded overconfidence. Through economic and financial convergence, European business culture and practice become part of our everyday lives quickly and naturally. If this had not taken place, the corrupt bureaucracy and way of life still prevailing in our vicinity would probably dominate here as well.

To conclude, a key argument – in the end of the 1930s, under the wise guidance of Päts, we thought that we could manage on our own, work hard and bother nobody, be peaceful and neutral working Estonians. Not everyone thought so and a country and people standing alone were swallowed up and thrown several generations back in its natural development. History is there to learn from it.

An article by Rait Maruste.
(Delfi.ee opinion, 5 May)

Academy of Liberalism