Estonia’s presidency: How it went
EU diplomats in the last few months have liked to joke that the Estonians are interested only in e-problems and e-solutions. That’s not entirely fair, although the self-declared “digital society” (or e-Estonia as they like to call themselves) did succeed in elevating digital issues to Europe’s top political table — even if they didn’t achieve everything they might have hoped.
On Brexit, the Estonian presidency of the Council of the EU helped the bloc avoid a major banana peel by keeping the EU27 tightly behind the Phase 1 negotiations and achieving the green light for Phase 2. It will also be relieved that a big drop in migrants reaching Europe’s shores means that the migration issue lost some of its poisonous potency under its watch.
What it achieved: This semester’s legislative agenda for agriculture was sparse. Tallinn can only really claim credit for successfully piloting agricultural policy reforms through the inelegantly named “Omnibus regulation.” The reforms are important though, because farmers won a basket of exemptions from EU competition rules — opt-outs that were designed to boost profits. Tallinn also pumped new energy into long-stalled talks among the 28 to reform veterinary medicine rules and combat antimicrobial resistance.
What it didn’t: Despite aiming to raise awareness about soil health, the issue remains largely ignored at European level — both among policymakers and environmental groups.
Surprises: The Estonians had to grapple unexpectedly with the toxic organics dossier — the bane of many previous presidencies. Malta had managed a political agreement on reforms but Germany, Europe’s largest organic food market, pulled its support for the measures because of intense domestic opposition. The Commission lobbied governments heavily to help Estonia regain a majority in Council in favor of new rules.
What it achieved: With the clock ticking — as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is fond of saying — there was one objective on Brexit, and that was to reach the “sufficient progress” milestone that would unlock Phase 2 of the talks by the end of the year. On that score, it was mission accomplished — and by and large on the EU27’s terms. Much of the credit for that goes to Barnier at the European Commission and the European Council’s general secretariat, but the Estonian presidency played its part too — chairing meetings of key diplomats to keep the process ticking forward. The Estonians managed to prevent other divisive issues from contaminating the Brexit discussions and blowing up the EU27’s rock solid unity.
What it didn’t: With Phase 2 of the negotiations looking even more complicated than Phase 1, anyone in favor of a deal that avoids major economic harm for both sides may end up regretting that the negotiators missed the October Council summit deadline for sufficient progress.
CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
What it achieved: Tallinn managed to bag a big climate win, wrapping up long-running negotiations about reforming the bloc’s carbon market in November, just days ahead of the COP23 climate summit. It also succeeded in getting EU countries to agree on a common position on the bloc’s two main climate files — national emissions targets in sectors not covered by the Emissions Trading System, as well as how to count the land use, land use change and forestry sector in the EU’s climate targets. A week before Christmas, it managed to clinch a political agreement on new accounting rules for forests and lands. On the highly technical waste package, it negotiated a deal setting new recycling targets for 2035. Then, just days before the holidays, it also reached a provisional deal with the European Parliament on national emissions targets in sectors such as transport and agriculture.
What it didn’t: Nothing, really, on the climate front. The Estonians managed to (provisionally) wrap up every major climate file during their presidency.
Surprises: There was so little to do on the environment front by the end of the term that the Estonian presidency simply canceled the final Environment Council of the year.
What it achieved: The Estonians, who see themselves as digital champions, managed to shift the conversation to tech with a hefty dose of politics — roping EU heads of state into a high-level Digital Summit in September. They forced open discussions on a long-stalled file on consumer rules for online shoppers. They built consensus on the EU’s telecom reform and reached an agreement on forcing online retailers to sell to EU customers regardless of where they live.
What it didn’t: France and Germany abruptly hijacked Estonia’s own plans on promoting the digital economy when they proposed a new taxation scheme for digital giants. The presidency also didn’t manage to get consensus among countries on some more controversial files, like Europe’s copyright reform. And it missed a deadline on wrapping up three-way talks on audiovisual media reform and didn’t progress much on proposed privacy rules for telecoms and chat services.
Surprises: EU leaders actually seemed to take the Estonian digital pitch seriously, buying into the renewed focus on tech with more enthusiasm than many expected. So even if the presidency failed to get what it wanted on a range of files, it did spark some serious digital conversations among EU heads of state and government.
EMPLOYMENT AND SOCIAL POLICY
What it achieved: The Estonian presidency managed to get agreement between governments on some of the most contentious dossiers on the political agenda, not least updates to the Posted Workers Directive, which even President Emmanuel Macron of France took an interest in. It also managed to secure the Council’s backing for the Pillar of Social Rights, a document signed off in Sweden that lays out the rights to which EU citizens are entitled. It won Council agreement on a position on a draft law obliging products and services to be made accessible to disabled people. And it made significant progress on new measures to coordinate social security systems.
What it didn’t: A final deal wasn’t done on posted workers although discussions with MEPs are moving in the right direction.
Surprises: After years of difficult discussions between Eastern and Western member countries, the breakthrough on posted workers was as much a win as it was unexpected.
What it achieved: The Estonian presidency succeeded in what many thought was almost impossible — getting agreement on the Council’s joint position in negotiations with Parliament on four legislative proposals aimed at readying the EU’s electricity markets for more renewables, more electricity flows across borders, more competition, and more consumer involvement. It also agreed a joint position on new rules meant to get countries to prepare for electricity supply risks and step up regional cooperation. Days before handing over to Bulgaria, it also clinched a deal with the European Parliament on boosting energy efficiency in buildings — the first of the Clean Energy Package’s eight legislative files to get through all negotiation stages. Some critics felt they rushed some of the negotiations at the expense of quality.
What it didn’t: The Estonians fell short of an agreement among countries on a plan to boost the powers of the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators to reflect the bloc’s shift to more regional cooperation.
Surprises: The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project landed unexpectedly in the Estonians’ lap. First, they had to steer a request through Council from the Commission for a mandate to negotiate a deal with Russia over the controversial pipeline. As a result, the Commission ended up proposing the expansion of the bloc’s gas rules to third-country projects (to cover Nord Stream 2), something the Estonians also had to oversee in the Council.
What it achieved: Tallinn pushed hard for an EU debate about online levies for web giants such as Google and Amazon that benefit from the EU’s outdated fiscal rules. That discussion even led to ambitious Council conclusions at the end of Estonia’s six-month tenure. The conclusions were ultimately watered down, but reaching any kind of consensus on such a sensitive subject is a win. The same can be said for successfully drawing up and agreeing an EU blacklist for tax havens outside the bloc — even if the list dodged the inclusion of any EU countries. The Estonian presidency also reached an agreement on the politically sensitive file that aimed to develop a ranking of creditors when a bank goes bust. And it brokered a deal on transitional arrangements for accounting standard IFRS9. Without this, banks would have been unduly penalized.
What it didn’t: Estonia made virtually no progress on the Commission’s controversial plan to develop a common corporate tax base. Whether that’s because it had no interest in pushing it forward, or because EU countries had no appetite for the plan is debatable. Either way, it’s not great. The Baltic country had hoped to find a general approach on the risk reduction package, a set of proposals aimed at making banks safer and preventing taxpayer bailouts, put forward by the Commission last year. It will be up to Bulgaria to get it over the finish line but Estonia should still get respect for running it close. Estonia also fell short on finding an agreement to introduce a European Deposit Insurance Scheme. In fairness, that goal that was never going to happen, as finance ministers won’t agree to risk-sharing without risk reduction first.
Surprises: An unexpected move from the Estonian presidency was how much it changed the Commission’s European Markets Infrastructure Regulation 2.2 proposal (the original EMIR was adopted in 2012 to reduce risk in the derivatives market). It could result in the forced relocation of euro-denominated derivatives into the bloc — something Brexit Britain will be watching closely — but under Tallinn’s guidance, the Council inserted caveats and conditions to make such a dramatic move less likely.
What it achieved: Not much. Estonia didn’t aim high on health issues during its presidency. It focused on alcohol harm issues that cannot be regulated at national level because Europeans are allowed to bring in large quantities of alcohol from one country to the other. It also evangelized e-health as a way to improve health systems, but the Health Council conclusions on the issue are merely a rerun of many initiatives already taking place.
What it didn’t: The Health Council conclusions on alcohol-related harm didn’t make a dent in the existing divisions on alcohol consumption between the Northern and the Southern countries. And it wasn’t able to convince the European Commission to propose a new alcohol strategy at a European level.
Surprises: Having to act as kingmaker in the battle to host the European Medicines Agency post Brexit. It was the Estonian presidency that settled the tie by drawing Amsterdam from a bowl.
MARITIME AND FISHING
What it achieved: Estonia led two intense fish quota negotiations, which traditionally take up the lion’s share of work in the second half of the year for the country that holds the Council presidency. As part of these talks, it managed to wrangle both the Commission and the Council into agreeing to more stringent protections for the European eel and sea bass. It also reached an agreement with the Commission and Parliament on the North Sea Multiannual Plan, the legislation that lays out how the basin will be managed over the next few years.
What it didn’t: Closing legislative files wasn’t a priority for the Estonian presidency, which dedicated most of its time to catch-limit discussions for the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Tallinn was also unable to deliver on its key fisheries promise: To advance a management plan for Baltic salmon.
Surprises: There weren’t many surprises from the Estonian presidency other than the length of time required to negotiate quotas. Both the October and December Council meetings carried on into the early hours — even longer than usual. EU fish officials say this is likely the new normal as the EU is obliged to set catch limits within sustainable ranges by 2020 under the Common Fisheries Policy.
MIGRATION AND NEIGHBORHOOD
What it achieved: Some successes in a politically toxic area of policy. One achievement was the Council agreement in November on a negotiating mandate on the Reception Conditions Directive. The aim here is that by harmonizing standards across the EU, migrants will be less likely to move to countries where they feel they will be treated better.
In the same month, the presidency shepherded through a Council agreement on the Resettlement Directive for the admission of people in need of international protection, to provide legal pathways to the EU.
With the Council’s position now settled on both, negotiations can start with the European Parliament.
The presidency also made some progress on the EU’s asylum fingerprint database, Eurodac, and on reform of the Asylum Procedure Regulation, which sets minimum standards for how member countries grant and withdraw refugee status.
What it didn’t: The Estonian presidency (like Malta before it) failed to make any real progress on the most contentious issue — reforming the Dublin Regulation, which mandates that migrants must seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. Estonia put forward a proposal on Dublin reform in November whereby relocation would not be mandatory, but critics say it was just a way of kicking the problem into Bulgaria’s presidency.
Surprises: An early (and pleasant) surprise was the significant drop in the numbers of migrants reaching Europe. That meant that migration has been a less potent issue for the presidency.
SECURITY AND JUSTICE
What it achieved: The Estonian presidency’s main goal, one it successfully achieved, was an agreement on strengthening eu-LISA: the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice. An empowered eu-LISA might eventually help with interoperability of databases, meaning one query could search five different information sources (for example one on fingerprints of migrants and another on car number plates).
What it didn’t: Tallinn wanted to finish trilogue discussions with the Commission and Parliament on the EU Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), an automated system which would strengthen security checks on visa-free travellers and bridge an existing information gap on such people. Disagreement remains profound, so don’t expect movement soon.
Surprise: Nothing major out of left field.
Rating: 6/10. Not a priority for Tallinn.
What it achieved: When it comes to fending off trade threats, the Estonians helped strengthen Fortress Europe. The country struck a deal with the Parliament and Commission on the biggest overhaul of EU trade defenses in decades. It also managed to secure a last-minute agreement that will increase EU anti-dumping duties (an extra tax on goods produced with subsidized raw materials). Both files required skilful negotiation, as lawmakers and governments were torn between Europe’s heavy industries, which worry about massive inflow of cheap Chinese steel, aluminum, ceramics and textiles on the one side, and downstream producers relying on those cheap imports to make cars and other manufactured goods. There was also massive pressure from China, which threatened to hit German carmakers with punitive fines unless the EU granted it market economy status.
What it didn’t: Estonia fought hard but failed to include language on data in EU trade agreements. The country has a burgeoning startup economy, which relies on access to users and data in other countries. Estonia wanted to make the free flow of data a core demand in EU trade deals. But Martin Selmayr, the influential chief of staff to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, delayed those plans.
Surprises: The deal on increasing anti-dumping tariffs went beyond what was initially expected, as it will allow the Commission to slap Chinese dumped goods with sky-high duties, something Northern countries wanted to avoid.
What it achieved: The Estonian presidency secured agreement between the institutions for a final law on a wide-ranging mandate for the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and on post-Dieselgate reforms to the way cars can be cleared for sale in the bloc. Both were highly political files, with some countries (think Germany) keen to protect their auto industry from greater oversight from the European Commission. It also forged consensus among ministers on posted worker legislation with trilogue talks already underway.
What it didn’t: Progress on the Commission’s mobility package files dealing with everything from truckers’ employment rights to how to configure the EU’s road tolling systems has been difficult, despite the Commission publishing the draft texts in May. It was a tough ask, because countries are split over the degree of access they are willing to allow to their road transport markets. Poorer countries argue that richer countries want to shut their truckers out of the single market.
Surprises: No surprises. After a tumultuous negotiating period under the Maltese over the EASA file, the Estonians kept it slick.
Harry Cooper, Simon Marks, David Herszenhorn, James Randerson, Kait Bolongaro, Jacopo Barigazzi, Carmen Paun, Emmet Livingstone, Hans Von Der Burchard, Jakob Hanke, Joshua Posaner, Laurens Cerulus, Sara Stefanini, Kalina Oroschakoff, Marion Solletty, Joanna Plucinska, Bjarke Smith-Meyer, Marion Solletty, Fiona Maxwell and Anca Gurzu contributed reporting.
The article has been updated to include the latest developments in the climate and environment files.