On Europe: A Conversation with Former Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves

On 14th September 2003, the Estonian European Union membership referendum took place, and with 63% of the population voting in favour, the nation became an EU member on 1st May, 2004adopting the single currency in 2010.

The arguments against sound as familiar today as they did then.  The ‘no’ camp cited red-tape, sovereignty, and many of the same reasons Brexit campaigners used during the referendum of 2016 where Britain decided to leave the European Union.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fears of the anti-EU members of Estonian society didn’t play out and today’s Estonia is a thriving, forward-looking member state of the EU and NATO with a fast-growing entrepreneurial economy, and a robust digital democracy; envied by much of the world.

The Republic of Estonia as we know it had been independent since 1918, and following a 50-year Soviet occupation following World War II, became independent once again in 1991.  This is a nation with a strong sense of identity, which has fought subsequent occupations and survived; yet one which has embraced the EU and thrived.

To learn more about this perspective on Europe, I spoke to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Former President of Estonia.

Q:  Why do we need an entity like Europe to exist?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] Europe is essential to allow countries to compete in the real world.

Just take a look at China which- for example- has more middle-class citizens than the entire population of Europe’s largest member state, Germany.   Without the existence of Europe, smaller countries like mine [Estonia] would have a difficult time to survive economically or even from a defence perspective.

The internal European market is absolutely vital for the functioning of the very different economies of the continent, and you can see from the travails of the United Kingdom today, just what they’re giving up.

Q:  How do you consolidate your sense of national identity with your European identity?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] In my case, and for many people I know, a European identity is something that was denied to us for 50 years.

For 50 years, Estonia was occupied by the Soviets, and so- for us- for our people, who were under communist domination, we were comfortable and happy to take on a European identity when we gained independence.

Identity is something incredibly personal; and how the individual combines their national and European identity is something they do themselves.

Q:  Has the European experiment been successful?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] The European experiment has absolutely been successful.

Europe was key to reducing the rising tensions between Germany, France and other nations after World War 2.  Most clearly Europe was a complement to the security offered by NATO.   You cannot have a collective defence organisation without also fostering prosperity, and Europe has done a great job of that latter task.

To think of the ruins of Europe after 1945 and to see where it has risen to, and clearly it has been a huge success.

Especially with the implementation of the single market, we in Europe, are a force to be reckoned with, and at the same time offer our citizens opportunities that otherwise would completely be missing. 

Q:  Why is anti-European sentiment growing?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] People are always dissatisfied with the status-quo, it’s kind of a gut reaction; but I think if you were to rationally trying to think about going it alone, those who are anti-European would have considerable difficulty in rationally making a case for doing it.

Smaller countries would struggle to do well economically or even from a security perspective outside Europe in these times.  They would be subject to all kinds of bullying.

One reason why Russia particularly despises the European Union is their preference for bilateral relationships.  However, the bilateral relationships they could (and would) build would be completely domineering- even with the Europe’s largest member state, Germany – and that doesn’t even take into account smaller countries on the periphery where Russia may even have had an interest.

In bilateral relationships they’re completely domineering, and with even the largest country, which is Germany, not to mention small countries like mine or whether they be other small countries, especially those that Russia has an interest in.

We are seeing lots of strong atavistic emotional responses in Europe, we certainly saw it during the French Election– but I don’t know how atavistic the people of France would continue to be if their economy went South, and they needed visas to travel to their neighbouring countries like Spain and Germany.

Q:  What are your views on BREXIT? 

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] From a political angle, and speaking from my own national perspective, the Northern European countries have tended to be fairly open to free trade and liberal ideas, and with the departure of the UK- the only large country in the EU (and certainly the one that carries the most clout) the rest of us in Northern Europe will be weaker – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The departure of the UK from the EU also makes it harder for Europe, as a joined-up entity, to remain strong on issues such as Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine.  So in many, many ways – the departure of the UK will be felt by all of us.

Without a doubt, the brunt of the pain from the UK’s departure from the EU will be felt by UK itself.

For some countries, the economic impact of BREXIT will be offset by- for example- the wholesale move of banking system and major businesses to the continent.

The biggest losers at this point, unless an agreement is found, are the 2 million or so non-British EU citizens living in the UK – even there however, given how important EU academics have been to the stunning success of UK higher education, do you really think they’re going to get kicked out? The same is true of scientific research and corporate innovation… so good luck with that. 

Q:  What reforms does the EU need?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] I am not sure how much you can reform in the EU’s governance but- for example- I find the idea that we should have a directly elected commission President absurd.  In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and Jay pointed out that were you to have a direct election of the US president, of a popular sort, you would be met with the fact that only the largest states would have a chance to become President.  Statements like, ‘a direct election of a European commission President will solve things…’ are silly, not thought through, and don’t reflect how fair democracies actually work.

We need a lot less sloganeering, and much greater focus on developing services for citizens.

Schengen is one of the most successful (from the citizen point of view) policies that has ever been adopted in Europe.  Things like the single market tend have an indirect impact on citizens, because you don’t see the effects immediately, but Schengen is something that any citizen can experience and has become useful.

I personally want to throw up every time I hear some completely senseless and baseless statement like ‘we need more of Europe, not less’.  It means nothing, and those slogans simply drive people crazy – It goes to show the intellectual vacuousness of the people who say them.

We have to shift the focus of our discussions on Europe to trying to deal with the citizens’ concerns.  And I mean simple things, like ‘I can’t buy an iTunes record for someone living in a different country because of the geolocation requirements and copyright’.  These are things that we need to move on so people do feel they live in a genuinely borderless Europe.

You sometimes hear people comment on the difficulties adopting borderless digital programmes across Europe, but these comments are made by people who don’t understand IT.  These are the same people who want to create backdoors to monitor communications across the European Union, they have no clue what they’re talking about. 

Q:  How can digital services help connect people across Europe?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] In my country [Estonia], we have digital prescriptions; so, if you go and see a doctor, the doctor puts your prescription into a computer system and you go to any pharmacy with your ID card and get your medicines, and it makes the process of getting repeat prescriptions more comfortable and simple. A logical step is to allow this across EU borders. Now we are getting there with our neighbour, Finland, so a Finn who loses his medicine in Estonia can have his doctor in Finland give him a new prescription that the patient can pick up while in Estonia This one digital piece is very easy to solve technologically, but politically it took us 5 years.

Imagine you’re a EU citizen from Sweden, and you get sick in Italy.  The fact that you could simply send an email to your doctor in Sweden to allow that prescription to be claimed at a pharmacy in Milano would be simple, and immensely useful.

These are the kinds of digital services that have been technologically available for 25 years but just haven’t been implemented anywhere.

That’s what I’m talking about, not this idea that ‘Estonia is small, they can do it’.  They have no idea what Estonia’s done, how it’s gone through it, why or what everyone needs to do that.  Basically, for scalability all you need is more servers.  

Q:  Are EU funding mechanisms supporting high-growth business?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] When it comes to entrepreneurship, especially the rough and tumble world of IT, you see it doesn’t have a place in current policies.

The whole approach of EU support for the private sector is diametrically opposed to the ethos of start-ups.

Here’s the thing, if you want to build a hotel, you’re going to build a hotel, so you can apply for EU funding, develop tourism, or something, and that’s fine.

If you have a start-up, you start out with an idea, but in 6 months you realise ‘that wasn’t the right idea.  Actually, based on what I’ve been working on, I’m going to move in this direction’.  Maybe a year down the line you realise ‘Well I have an even better direction to move into’.  This is how truly creative companies work.  Nobody can do that with EU funding because you are locked-in to your original proposal – and because of that no-one I know in the start-up world wants money from the EU.

Companies grow and change so rapidly that people don’t know what they’ll be doing in a year or two, and if you’re locked into a funding agreement that says you can only do this one thing, you won’t be agile enough to be a success. That’s a failure, and leads nowhere.

The EU does a lot to build the right environment for entrepreneurship, but its funding approach is stuck in the 20th century world of bricks and mortar.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation?

[Toomas Hendrik Ilves] Right now, only 2% of Europeans have studied outside of their home country – I would want to raise that to 45%.

The provincialism that reigns in so many countries would be considerably lessened if it was just considered normal that you would spend at least a year in some other country at university or during your secondary education.

When you understand that Europe is a whole, and that you can be anything you want to be, anywhere you want to- if you just make a little effort to learn a language, it’s wonderful.

I would encourage all young people to take their first step, go and study somewhere else.  Somewhere far away.  Normally that leads to two results.  One is that you appreciate your own country more, and secondly you do understand that people are different and that it is okay!


View Interviewee Biographies

Toomas Hendrik Ilves was born on December 26, 1953, to an Estonian family living in Stockholm, Sweden. He was educated in the United States, receiving a degree from Columbia University in 1976 and a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978.

In 1984 he moved to Munich, Germany, to work at the office of Radio Free Europe, first as a researcher and foreign policy analyst and later as the head of the Estonian Desk.

From 1993 to 1996 Ilves served in Washington as the ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to the United States and Canada. During this time, he launched the Tiger Leap Initiative to computerize and connect all Estonian schools online with Education Minister Jaak Aaviksoo. He then served as minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 1998. After a brief period as chairman of the North Atlantic Institute in 1998, he was again appointed minister of foreign affairs, serving until 2002.

From 2002 to 2004, Ilves was a member of the Estonian Parliament and in 2004 he was elected a member of the European Parliament, where he was vice-president of the Foreign Affairs Committee. As a MEP, he initiated the Baltic Sea Strategy that was later implemented as official regional policy of the European Union.

Ilves was elected president of the Republic of Estonia in 2006. He was re-elected for a second term in office in 2011.

During his presidency, Ilves has been appointed to serve in several high positions in the field of ICT in the European Union. He served as chairman of the EU Task Force on eHealth from 2011 to 2012 and was chairman of the European Cloud Partnership Steering Board at the invitation of the European Commission from 2012 to 2014. In 2013 he chaired the High-Level Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms convened by ICANN. From 2014 to 2015 Ilves was the co-chair of the advisory panel of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 “Digital Dividends and was also the chair of World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Cyber Security beginning in June 2014.

Starting from 2016, Ilves co-chairs The World Economic Forum working group The Global Futures Council on Blockchain Technology. In 2017 he joined Stanford University as a Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

His international awards and honorary degrees include Knight of Freedom Award by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation (2016), the Aspen Prague Award by the Aspen Institute (2015), the Freedom Award by the Atlantic Council (2014) and the NDI Democracy Award by the National Democratic Institute (2013). His Honorary Degrees include an Honorary Degree from St. Olaf College, US (2014), an Honorary Degree from the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland (2010), and an Honorary Degree from Tbilisi University, Georgia (2007).



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