Brussels can’t keep easterners from top jobs forever, Estonian PM says

Brussels can’t keep easterners from top jobs forever, Estonian PM says
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 22 March 2023 17:45

Europe’s east is being heard like never before. Now it’s now time to put some of those people atop the EU or NATO, Kaja Kallas told POLITICO.

It’s time for Europe’s eastern crew to get a top job.

That was the message Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas had for her fellow leaders during an interview with POLITICO ahead of an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Since Russia began its unyielding campaign to seize Ukraine, countries like Estonia and its Baltic neighbors are being heard — and driving policy — like never before. Now, Kallas stressed, it’s time to also put some of those people in charge.

“We have been members of NATO and the European Union for 19 years,” Kallas said from her office in Tallinn, taking a break from her coalition talks to form a new government. Estonia entered both organizations in 2004, joining alongside six other countries that had once been part of the Soviet-era Eastern Bloc.

“Do we have … worse people than the old Europeans? Or are we not there yet?” Kallas said. “I think the answer is that, no, actually, we have very good people.”

“We should be on the radar for top jobs,” she added. “We have been proving ourselves in both of those organizations.”

Kallas, in many ways, embodies the recent eastward shift in European power dynamics.

When EU leaders gather on Thursday, they’re expected to endorse an Estonian-proposed, first-of-its-kind plan to jointly purchase ammunition for Ukraine while boosting European defense manufacturing. The EU has also moved with remarkable alacrity to impose round after round of sanctions on Russia, with the Baltic countries always leading the push.

Back in Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, Kallas just won her national election, prevailing over a far-right party in part by championing her support for Ukraine and anti-Russia policies.

In Brussels, however, there are currently no eastern Europeans atop the EU’s three major institutions — the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament — and no eastern European has ever led NATO. The closest the region came to nabbing a top job was when former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk helmed the European Council from 2014 to 2019.

While Kallas wasn’t explicitly campaigning for a job, the Estonian’s name has been circulating, most notably at NATO. The military alliance is facing a potential change in leadership this year, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s term expiring soon.

“I heard that,” Kallas said. “It’s a great compliment for me, but also for my country that we are considered to be equals around the table.”

And it shows the rising status of Europe’s eastern countries, she said: “It’s a great thing, we have achieved something.” Yet when asked whether she would be interested in moving back to Brussels, where she served as a European Parliament member from 2014 to 2018, Kallas demurred — while not closing the door.

“I just won the elections, and nobody has actually talked to me about this,” she said, insisting it is “highly unlikely that I will be offered such a job.”

But she added tantalizingly: “The gossip is very interesting.”

For now, Kallas’ focus in Brussels is on ensuring the EU doesn’t relent in its support for Ukraine and its campaign to isolate Russia. A key part of that strategy is the EU’s upcoming plan to jointly purchase ammunition for Kyiv — an elemental shift for the self-described peace project.

Kallas put the idea to her fellow EU leaders during a February summit in Brussels. The proposal, she said, came from talking with her staff and defense executives who said “they were not doubling their production because they don’t have any orders. And we see on the other side that Russia is working in three shifts.”

The plan commits to providing Ukraine with 1 million rounds of ammunition over the next 12 months, setting aside €2 billion for the effort.

Kallas compared the scheme to the EU’s collective purchase of COVID vaccines. She argued that similarities between the two efforts allowed the bloc to move swiftly — the ammo blueprint came together in about five weeks, lightning speed by EU standards.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any arm-twisting. Two diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was initially hesitant when Kallas raised the idea in February. But Kallas pushed back on the characterization.

“No, it wasn’t that direct,” she said, stressing that Germany had merely noted it had already put in orders to defense firms. “Everybody was quite open about this … and Germany, as well.”

Still, she admitted to sending some fellow EU leaders WhatsApp messages stressing the situation’s urgency.

“I have learned a lot during these two years that I’ve been in the European Council,” she said. “Before I became a politician, I was a lawyer. And in private practice, everything moves really quick. … Then I went to politics, and things take longer.”

With a blueprint now in place, Kallas is bullish the EU can meet its self-imposed ammunition deadline. And beyond the €2 billion push, Kallas didn’t refrain from thinking out loud about how to fund a broader expansion of the EU’s defense industry. One thought was to exclude countries’ defense spending from the EU’s strict budgetary rule. Another: Explore the contentious idea of “defense bonds” — essentially debt that governments issue to help finance military expenditures.

But she wasn’t ready to offer her fellow EU leaders advice on how to maintain public support for these extraordinary — and expensive — programs to help Ukraine fend off Russian invaders.

“How do you win the hearts and minds of the people? I’m not entirely sure that I know this,” she conceded. “I’ve been in politics less than I’ve been in private practice, and I still feel insecure.”

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