Together with the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Estonian Center of Eastern Partnership (ECEAP) organised a discussion panel on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) as part of the annual Opinion Festival taking place every August in the town of Paide, Estonia.
The discussion panel assessed the effectiveness of the EaP for the Eastern Partner countries and its benefit for Estonia from the perspective of Estonians representing a variety of fields. Drawing on their experiences working with the Eastern Partner countries were Hannes Rumm (moderator), Urmas Reinsalu (Estonian Foreign minister), Maarika Truu (leader of Startup Estonia), Andres Laisk (Head of Saue municipality), and Maris Jõgeva (representative of civil society).
Mr. Reinsalu stressed that the Eastern Partnership remains an important foreign policy priority for Estonia as the stability and modernisation of the Eastern Partner countries is also in Estonia’s interests. During its first ten years, the EaP has been a success story supporting reform processes in the Eastern Partner countries. However, as a result of different crises that the EU has confronted in the recent years, a lack of enthusiasm for the further deepening of cooperation with the Eastern Partner countries has started to become widespread in Western Europe. As a result of this trend the responsibility of proposing ways to move forward with cooperation can be seen to fall on the more recent EU Member States like Poland and Estonia. Mr. Reinsalu also stressed that Estonia’s interest in the Eastern Partner countries is their general development in the direction of functioning democracies and market economies rather than in supporting or opposing any specific government.
The importance of the EaP to Estonia was confirmed by the establishment of ECEAP in 2011 by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the School of Diplomacy noted Mr Reinsalu. Functioning as a competence center and expert hub, ECEAP has been an important instrument helping to maximise the benefit of Estonian development cooperation efforts in the Eastern Partner countries. The participants pointed out that Estonia’s historical background, success in integrating with the EU and implementing related reforms make Estonia a trusted partner from the perspective of the Eastern Partner countries.
Moreover, Estonia’s reputation as e-Estonia has encouraged successful cooperation in the ICT field. The development of startup enterprises, especially in the ICT field, was highlighted as a success story. Estonia’s Startup Visa program enables specialists from abroad to come to Estonia to work in start-up businesses or to establish their own thereby contributing to Estonia’s economy. Estonian businesses in turn are encouraged to explore investment opportunities in the Eastern Partner countries as development cooperation also helps improve the local business climate.
In the field of local self-government, the main areas of cooperation have been concerning the adoption of e-Government and ICT solutions, organisation of administrative work processes and conducting administrative reform. As a result good relations have been established between different Estonian and Eastern Partner countries’ municipalities enabling long-term cooperation and sharing of experiences. It was emphasised that in order to ensure sustainable results it is important to avoid one-off short-term projects which have very limited impact and instead focus on projects that include more extended contact and are tailor-made to the needs of the local partners.
Developing and supporting a strong civil society and NGOs has been another important field where Estonian experiences are valued. Estonian NGOs have been conducting training projects to share experiences in organising a functioning civil society based on democratic values, advancing human rights and principles of sustainable development. It was pointed out that the more there are countries that share the same values as Estonia, the easier it is to defend these values on the global level. It was also agreed that it is important to the success of cooperation to approach counterparts from an equal standing and to concentrate on conducting projects based on the real needs of the partners.
The Estonian Opinion Festival provides a platform for a variety of worldviews, therefore making it a meeting place for all layers of society. It was founded in 2013 with a mission to improve overall debate culture and civic education. ECEAP has previously also promoted similar events in the Eastern Partner countries.
Organisation of the discussion panel was financed by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ funds for development cooperation.
Discussion Panel on the EaP at the Opinion Festival in Estonia