Mart Laar: On Europe’s past, present and future

The European project becomes more and more technocratic and further and further away from the people. Voters do not feel that they are part of the project. They are missing a vision and big new goals.

Since March this year, the restored Republic of Estonia has lasted longer than the pre-war Republic. This was a dream for former president Lennart Meri. He was born in independent Estonia, lived there until its destruction and then moved with his nation to the Golgotha Mountain. He worked hard for the restoration of Estonia’s independence. Meri knew that the loss of Estonia’s independence was a result of unfortunate international events and the actions of foreign powers. He nevertheless puzzled over the question of whether it would have been possible for Estonia to do something differently, so as to avoid such a tragic fate and save its independence. This remained an open question for Lennart and we discussed it many times. All his life and work was connected with his dream to act differently this time around and to avoid the fate of the pre-war republic.

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Meri’s answer to the question of how to preserve Estonia’s independence was actually simple — the answer was Europe. But Estonia lacked this vision at those times and Lennart’s main goal was not to lose this possibility. This vision made Lennart a big European. At the same time he had no illusions about Europe. He knew that Europe had changed and was not the same as it was in his childhood. There were some aspects of Europe that he did not find very reasonable, but these were common positions and we would have to accept them. Nevertheless, in Europe everything was negotiable. This was not the same kind of union as the Soviet Union had been. But when we joined the European Union, we could not imagine, even in our wildest dreams, that Estonia would have to deal with Greek debt and save Russian oligarchs’ money from the banks in Cyprus. We never thought that less than a decade later we would witness that Europe lives by George Orwell’s formula — that all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. We thought that when Europe had established the rules, then everybody would play by them. It was only later that we found out that for some countries, especially in the south of Europe, the common rules do not apply. These rules are just for some countries; the others can ignore them. And when these countries run into difficulties and ask for help, the countries who contribute can be called very nasty names, such as ‘fascists’.

Currently we see quite a clear division between north and south in Europe. The north is doing well, more or less, while the south is not. The northern countries are ready to help the southern part of Europe. In southern Europe, solidarity rules, the populists are active and in some countries, in power. In northern Europe, more reasonable attitudes prevail. How long this can last is an open question. Populism is also growing in northern Europe and this is fully understandable. It is more and more difficult to explain to voters that they must live less well to help people who live better than they do. It is not possible to explain to the people that they must follow the rules when other countries do not. People want to live well now, not at some time in the distant future. In Estonia, voters can easily compare local salaries and pensions with those in Greece and find that they are quite low. A teacher’s salary in Greece is three times higher, but I think that the amount of work is the same as it is in Estonia. People in Estonia look at salaries in Finland and go to work there, leaving their homeland. It would be easy for Estonia to forget all the rules and to raise living standards significantly. Estonia could easily double its foreign debt, take large loans and double the salaries of teachers and other public servants. To pay these loans back, we could borrow twice as much and still our debt ratio would be lower than that of many European states. Economically this would, of course, be a very dangerous step. But by then, the good government is gone and other politicians have to take responsibility for solving the crisis. In such a situation it is very difficult to avoid populist growth in northern Europe. That is why we especially need today the kind of politician Lennart Meri was in his time.

Meri was the president of Estonia in the most difficult years of our restored independence. The banks collapsed, criminality was very high and people earned 60 euros per month. The situation looked quite hopeless. Meri nevertheless kept the nation together and calmed tensions. He gave to the Estonian people the vision that united us — Europe. This was not an easy task. He was very outspoken and for his prime ministers and governments he was not an easy person to deal with. Occasionally, he clearly crossed the borders of the Estonian constitution. But his way of doing things worked. The people lived miserably, but they liked the direction in which Estonia was heading.


“Lennart Meri also liked the truth and was very frank. This — truth and frankness — is what we also need in today’s Europe.” 


Meri also liked the truth and was very frank. This — truth and frankness — is what we also need in today’s Europe. To have those qualities demands a lot of courage, but somebody must tell the people of Europe that the good times are really over. We cannot continue this way any longer.

So, let me be frank as well. There is no need to worry, let’s be happy — the worst is yet to come. Even if we can hope that the current economic crisis will go away, that the banks will be healthy again, that unemployment will decrease and that growth will be restored, Europe still has even worse problems ahead.


“So, let me be frank as well. There is no need to worry, let’s be happy — the worst is yet to come.”


Firstly, the social welfare state developed after the Second World War is no longer leading us to welfare. Somebody must point out that in 10 or 15 years our pension systems will edge into bankruptcy and there is nothing we can do about it. It is not possible to raise taxes endlessly. They are already high enough. To become competitive, Europe actually needs to decrease taxes. This situation also demands pension reforms, but this is a very complicated thing to do because it is very unpopular. Governments can, of course, try to raise the retirement age, but even the smallest step in this direction has brought millions of people onto the streets. Governments have usually tried to avoid conflict with the trade unions and backed off — so everything is calm now, but this will not last. The issues are not resolved. Future governments must in one way or another take responsibility and make some decisions. Europe’s interest is that these decisions will not act against Europe’s competitiveness.

Secondly, our aging society no longer has the money for all the social services it needs. We must decide which social services we can afford and which we cannot. This also demands local government reform, as is currently being discussed in Finland. Finland has developed a very high standard of social services and is one of the wealthiest societies in the world, but even they cannot continue in the same manner. To keep their social services they must reform their local governments so as to make the system more effective. One possible solution, of course, is to have more children — meaning more taxpayers in the future. But judging from birth-rates in most European nations this would also demand big changes in politics.

Thirdly, growing immigration is creating more and more tension in societies and falling birth-rates are only adding new aspects to this problem. It is now clear that the hope to solve European problems through increasing immigration was not a good solution. In some countries multikulti ist tot (multiculturalism is dead, as put by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor). Immigration can bring many young people to older societies, but in the space of one generation they become an even bigger burden for society. They would not integrate into society; they remain unemployed in many cases, and create other problems. They will not help solve existing social problems, but only add more than societies can cope with. Our societies can absorb only a certain percentage of immigrants. If that percentage is higher than society can absorb, the local community will feel threatened. That will lead to the rise of new political powers that are radical and anti-European. We have already witnessed such tendencies for some time, both in southern and northern Europe.


“Europe is losing its competitiveness and there looks to be no way that it can be won back.”


Fourthly, Europe is losing its competitiveness and there looks to be no way that it can be won back. We are overregulated and overtaxed, which means that in the near future we will be overruled. Europe’s role in the world is weakening. There have been many promises about exceeding the growth rates of the United States and the Asian tigers, but in reality the gap between Europe and the rest of the world is only growing and this is unfortunately a natural development. Europe has high standards in social regulation and in environmental protection. Other countries are, at the same time, doing what they want, ignoring all the rules. Have you heard about strong trade unions in China or about tough environmental protection in Russia? I am not suggesting that Europe should follow the lead of China or Russia; I am just arguing that the gap in standards is from another planet and this is the reality.

And more — Europe’s defence is weakening, dangerously putting Europe’s future in peril. It is said that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus, meaning that Europe relies more on its soft power than on its military strength. This can be a workable strategy, but it also demands that Europe has some military strength. Without this, all talk of soft power is not reliable. In the last decade, Europe has demonstrated that it is not ready to build a dependable defence. We hope that somebody else will defend us. Each year speeches are given and promises are made that military budgets will grow, but only the opposite happens. At the same time we know that countries which are not ready to feed their own army must be ready to feed foreign armies. Comparing Europe’s military capabilities with America’s, the gap between them is dangerously big. It is quite possible that in the near future European armament systems will not be interoperable with American ones, making them useless. At the same time the military strength of the rest of the world is only growing. I am not talking here about North Korea, but about China and other countries. What is Europe’s answer to the North Korean problem? Should somebody bother to ask Europe? When Europe lets other countries solve problems and is not interested in their solution, then Europe loses its importance quickly.

The issues I have raised are very serious; so serious that nobody really wants to talk about them openly. It is easier to bury those problems with discussions about gay marriage or something else, but this will not solve any of the problems that are strategically important to Europe. People feel themselves to be more rejected than ever and become easy targets for populists. The European project becomes more and more technocratic and further and further away from the people. Voters do not feel that they are part of the project. They are missing a vision and big new goals — voters in Europe are missing a future.

If we want to do something about this, we need a new Lennart Meri. We need a statesman or stateswoman who has the courage to speak the truth and to be frank. If we continue to be “politically correct” and are afraid of losing our political positions, we will go down together. Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) would then be a reality.


Disclaimer: This article was brought to you in collaboration with Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia:

The opinions in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian World Webzine.

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2 thoughts on “Mart Laar: On Europe’s past, present and future”

  1. Very well written opinion piece from Mart Laar, good read that really makes you think where do we go from here?
    We cannot continue on the same way we’ve done so far. And he’s right, we do need someone like Lennart Meri…….Who’s going to be brave and speak up? I hope for everyone’s sake that THAT PERSON will find the courage soon. Or perhaps has done so already. I sincerely hope so.

  2. Good article. Many EU nations have been more reticent in stimulating their economies than has the USA. Nevertheless, extreme debt burdens, such as in Greece, need to be avoided.
    The overall pessimistic tone is not justified. Estonia and Europe have survived far worse crises in the past. This too, shall pass.

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