Estonia’s decision of the decade: joining the EU

Joining the largest economic and political union in the world – the European Union – was the best decision Estonia could make in 2004.*

When Estonia restored its independence in 1991, it had a choice – to keep strong economic bonds with former imperial power Russia, or look to the West – towards Europe. After a brief false start, the country decisively turned its focus towards strong European integration after the centre-right Pro Patria Union, led by Mart Laar, won the parliamentary elections and  former film maker and writer, turned politician, Lennart Meri became the president in the autumn of 1992. Membership of the European Union and NATO quickly became the main objective of Estonian foreign policy.

Shaking off the Russian cloud

The route of action Estonia chose, along with its southern neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was clear – integration with Europe and NATO, as soon as possible. The clear sense of direction owed as much to security concerns, as it did to economic interests. The hope was that by aligning itself with Western institutions, Estonia could shake off the Russian cloud. Looking at the recent situation in Crimea, Ukraine, it couldn’t be any clearer that the route chosen was the right one.

Swift institutional progress was made and reforms introduced, sometimes hastily, by politicians and public servants. European values and principles among the public – a source of moral and political inspiration for the country at least since 13th century – started to take hold of Estonia again.

Yet, throughout 1990s there were many who doubted the probability of Estonia’s accession – both internally and externally. There were politicians on the international circuit who were ready to have a negative bet on Estonia’s chances of joining the EU, let alone NATO.

But the persistence paid off. Estonia formally applied for EU membership in 1995 and in 1998, Estonia became the first of the former Soviet republics to enter membership negotiations with the European Union. In 2002, it was formally invited to join at a summit in Copenhagen and the Estonian Parliament then announced that a referendum on membership of the EU would be held in mid September 2003.

Questions about sovereignty

By that time, however, the public mood was not completely supportive. Estonia had had a first taste of economic progress on its own merit and there were opponents who claimed that EU entry would slow the country’s economic growth. Equally, there were people who argued that Estonia should not go straight from one union, the Soviet Union, into the EU, fearing the loss of sovereignty so soon after regaining the independence – despite the fact that these are fundamentally different unions, in terms of ideology and economic model. Doubts were raised about whether a small country like Estonia would be given an opportunity to have any say in European Union matters.

The elderly President Arnold Rüütel, a Soviet-era pro-reform and pro-independence communist who had managed to become elected to the presidential office after Lennart Meri, was mobilised among others to campaign for the “Yes” vote and persuade the doubters. The governing Res Publica Party even used a campaign poster, calling for Estonians to vote “Yes” “for access to millions of sexier men”.

In the end, about two-thirds of votes cast were positive, and on 1 May 2004, Estonia, together with nine other countries, joined the largest economic and political union in the world – the European Union. A month before, it had joined the NATO.

The benefits

What have been the benefits? The initial benefits stemmed from the EU’s “four freedoms” – the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people.

Estonian entrepreneurs could benefit from the huge European internal market. People could embrace the new opportunities offered by open borders, both in terms of higher wages and broadening their professional horizons in other EU countries (albeit restrictions applied in most old EU members at first, for people seeking work – apart from the UK, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark). Professionals could easily gain new experience in London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Rome; or Stockholm and Helsinki. Students could study for higher education in respected European universities without paying the sky-high fees applied to non-EU residents.

Financial benefits for the country – according to the Estonian Ministry of Finance, by 2020, the EU will have supported Estonia with approximately 11 billion euros. At the same time, Estonia has contributed less than two billion euros back to the EU budget. According to The Economist, Estonia’s GDP per person has increased 30% since the accession, as of 2014.

International clout

Increasingly, the long-term significance for Estonia is the international clout that the country has achieved, thanks to being the member of the EU.

Before, and for a few years after the 2004 accession, Estonia, among other new members of the EU, was still looked down upon by many in the old Europe. When in 2003 Estonia, along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, backed the US position on Iraq – rightly or wrongly, is another subject – French president Jacques Chirac took a bullying position and said: “These countries have been not very well behaved and rather reckless of the danger of aligning themselves too rapidly with the American position. It is not really responsible behaviour. It is not well brought-up behaviour. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.” In other words, the newcomers were told to shut up.

Things started to change after the global financial crisis. As Europe plunged into crisis, Estonia managed to lift itself out of the trouble by exercising remarkable budget discipline and, as a result, qualifying for and joining the euro in 2011. Still a relatively new member state, Estonia became part of the eurozone “core” and was cited as a model of how fiscal credibility can work for the higher growth and rising employment. Estonians working in Brussels have reported that this fact itself helped Estonia to have unproportionally high influence, for a small country, at the discussion-board on the EU’s spending programmes (MFF) for 2014-20.

Coupled with its digital success and obeying both the rules of the eurozone and NATO, the country became –as expressed by The Economist’s then international editor Edward Lucas in his interview to Estonian World in 2012 – the quintessential European insider. The EU IT Agency and NATO Cyber Defence Centre became located in Tallinn. Delegations from various European countries started flocking into Estonia, to study its e-government and digital solutions. Mistaken were those who claimed that the country’s word would count for nothing in the EU.

Sharing know-how with Europe

Yet, this is just a beginning. There are many Estonian-invented digital solutions that could be used all over Europe, but the country could do more – first, to make everyone aware of them; and second, to export them.

For example, Estonia is already cooperating with Finland and Latvia in order to make digital signature technology available across borders. It has also started to cooperate with the UK on the development of digital public services. Indeed, one of Estonia’s European Union policy goals is the development of an efficient digital single market, where the EU citizens and businesses are able to use electronic services in any member state. None of it would have happened without Estonia’s membership of the EU.

So the benefits in relation to the EU are becoming mutual. As Estonia becomes wealthier, it will receive less financial support. It can also apply its knowledge on digital solutions across Europe.

And Estonia, for its part, is still learning when it comes to embracing Western European values of tolerance, openness and the social inclusion. 50 years under the Soviet occupation had its impact. Tens of thousands of young Estonians, who have lived in liberal Western European capitals since the EU accession, have started to import more cosmopolitan, open-minded thinking back home. Estonia could soon become the first of the former Moscow-ruled countries to introduce a law that allows same-sex couples to officially register their partnership (Estonian parliament passed the law in 2014, but the implementing acts have not been passed – editor). The largest wage gap between women and men in the EU, however, still needs ironing out.

Never alone

In some EU countries presently, such as Britain, far-right parties are trying to turn back time and the EU has become unpopular. Estonia has no such issues. The support for the EU among Estonian citizens has remained consistently high, staying between 70%-85% – one of the highest in the EU.

The problems facing the EU, such as population ageing, stiff competition from Asia, energy dependency on Russia or a refugee crisis have become common across the board, for both old and new members. But Estonia has now got an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process. Its citizens can feel freer in the wider world.

Perhaps slightly ironically, it was the great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said in a speech in Amsterdam in 1948: “We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace.”

After a forced break, Estonia became properly part of Europe again over 50 years later, yet there’s already a clear sense of being European. Thanks to belonging to the EU and NATO, Estonians can finally feel they are “never alone”.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. * This article was originally published on 1 May 2014, to mark ten years since Estonia’s accession to the European Union. The article was lightly edited on 1 May 2019.

4 thoughts on “Estonia’s decision of the decade: joining the EU”

  1. Generally I agree but I wonder if fewer people would have left Estonia if they couldn’t easily get access to the EU job market.

    1. Certainly fewer would have left, no doubt. But in the long run, many will return, bringing a different experience with them.

  2. Alan Tallmeister

    I’m a veteran anesthetist based in a community hospital in suburban Toronto but I occasionally work at endoscopic clinics elsewhere in the community. One such clinic named “Polyclinic” is in a neighbourhood with a large ex-Soviet immigrant clintele and the clinic itself was established by immigrant doctors from the former USSR. The signage and charts are in Cyrillic font with English subtitles and Russian is spoken widely between the nurses and patients. I mistook one of the staff on my first day there as of Chinese or Korean origins until he joined the Russian chatter. He explained that he was from Kazakhstan but frankly admitted for all intents and purposes it’s a province of Russia. The majority of inhabitants are slavic Europeans and the majority of Asian Khazakhs such as him are culturally assimilated and speak Russian as their first tongue. A surgical colleague recently went to Tadzhikistan on a medical mission and described a similar state of affairs there. an article in The Economist last year looked at countries relying heavily of remittances sent back by citizens working abroad. The most heavily reliant were the former Soviet central Asian republics with many of their working young sending money back from Russia, the Middle East and Western Europe. I wholeheartedly agree with the author being in favour of Estonia’s membership in the EU and not as an isolated, neutral country under the shadow of Russia.

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