Ideas on Europe

20 years of Estonia in the EU - Heiko Pääbo

@Nikola Johnny Mirkovic sur Unsplash 20 years of Estonia in the EU - Heiko Pääbo
@Nikola Johnny Mirkovic sur Unsplash

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

Today, you are professor at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, but what were doing when your country joined the European Union on the 1st of May 2004?

I was 24 years old and deeply immersed in the final stages of my master’s studies. It was a very intensive period, and I remember spending most of my evenings hunched over my desk, trying to put together my research findings in a coherent way. Besides the thesis, I worked as a study assistant at the Baltic Defence College. That job not only supported my studies but also kept me connected to significant events happening in the defence sector.

2004 was a crucial year for Estonia because, only one month earlier, we had also joined NATO. Probably due to my job, the memories of the NATO celebrations are definitely more vivid for me. Working in a military institution like the Baltic Defence College, the atmosphere was electrifying. There was a sense of achievement that resonated throughout the corridors. Estonia had worked incredibly hard to gain NATO membership. Back in the 1990s, it seemed far less likely compared to EU membership. There was a real feeling that we had managed to open a door many thought was closed to us.

NATO and the EU – two milestones within one month! I imagine the atmosphere across Estonia was extremely positive.

It was! The two memberships were widely regarded as a monumental step forward. We had achieved our main foreign policy goals, and there was a palpable sense of accomplishment and optimism. However, just one year earlier, the mood had been quite different.

Back then, in 2003, Estonia and Latvia had the highest proportion of Eurosceptics among the candidate states. As a result, our referenda were scheduled last, largely due to concerns that they might yield negative outcomes. There was a real anxiety that the votes could go against EU membership. But, contrary to some fears, Estonia voted in favour first, and a week later, Latvia followed, with both countries showing two-thirds support for joining the EU.

What were the reasons for this strong scepticism towards EU membership?

It's interesting to note that the lowest levels of support for EU accession came from two specific districts: North-East Estonia, which has a large Russian-speaking population, and South-East Estonia, a predominantly agricultural area. Paradoxically, these were the regions that arguably stood to gain the most from EU membership. And finally, even in these districts, support was over 50%. It showed a nationwide consensus, albeit with some reservations.

To clarify about those districts, the Russian-speaking population in North-East Estonia had felt discriminated against in terms of their rights and representation. The EU framework offers a system of human rights protections, providing guarantees that their rights would be more rigorously observed and upheld. This was a reassurance to many who felt marginalised. And for the farmers in South-East Estonia, EU membership was a game changer in terms of financial support. Before joining the EU, agricultural subsidies in Estonia were minimal and not sufficient to support the farmers effectively. The EU's agrarian subsidies provided much-needed financial assistance and a better access to larger markets.

In retrospect, how do you evaluate the outcome of EU membership for Estonia, twenty years later?

Given that Estonia joined the EU with relatively high scepticism and thus fewer illusions, I would say the outcome has turned out better than many had feared. I know that's a very Estonian answer. But truly, many of the fears that people had have not materialised. While some illusions might have faded, it's probably fair to say that we had more fears than overblown expectations.

Overall, Estonia has been generally proactive and cooperative at the EU level. Sometimes, the government is criticised for being too enthusiastic, particularly by some domestic actors—like certain politicians, journalists, or opinion leaders. For instance, Estonian officials are known for implementing all EU norms to the fullest extent, even those that are merely recommended.

This approach has perhaps made Estonia a bit of an overachiever in the EU, but it reflects our commitment to being part of the larger European community. It also shows a pragmatic and realistic stance towards our membership. We recognise the benefits, adhere to the standards, and actively contribute to the union. This proactive engagement has helped mitigate many initial concerns and has positioned Estonia as a reliable and committed member state.

Thank you very much, Heiko Pääbo, for your testimony and reflection. I recall you are Professor at the University of Tartu. All the best for the next twenty years!

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.