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23rd Feb 2020

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'USB condoms' and migration on Estonia's EU agenda

  • A view of Tallinn by Estonia's tourism office. The Baltic city will host around 45 events on digital affairs (Photo: Visit Estonia)

Matti Maasikas, the Estonian deputy minister for European affairs, had a difficult time picking which of the priorities of the incoming EU presidency was most important.

At an event organised by the European Policy Centre in Brussels, Maasikas said on Tuesday (27 June) an open and innovative economy, security, “a digital Europe”, and sustainability were all “equally important objectives”.

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  • Tallinn is known for its ubiquotous free wifi (Photo: Les rencontres RSLN)

But when asked by an audience member what most kept him awake at night, Maasikas did manage to boil it down to a single issue: “The migration crisis, and the implications of managing the migration crisis on European solidarity.”

He said one of Estonia's “main” priorities was to reform the European common asylum system, a politically toxic file that has put EU states at loggerheads.

On Saturday (1 July), Estonia will take over the rotating six-month presidency from Malta.

EU presidencies are for a large part an administrative task, which includes leading ministerial meetings and organising negotiations between member states and the EU parliament to reach compromise deals on legislative proposals.

But the six-month stints do offer member states an opportunity to accentuate certain areas, and to profile themselves.

“It will not come as a surprise that one of Estonia's overarching priorities is a digital Europe,” Maasikas said.

Digital pioneer

For years, the Baltic nation of 1.3 million inhabitants has profiled itself as a frontrunner in the field of digital technology.

Its government members have held paperless meetings since 1999; public wireless internet is commonplace in the country's capital, Tallinn; official documents can be signed with digital signatures; and at the most recent parliament elections in 2015, almost one in three voted via the internet.

“If I need medicine, I text my GP,” said Maasikas. “It will be in the pharmacy store when I get there.”

The Estonians will use their presidency to showcase how technology can make life easier.

Virtual reality

Estonia has planned around 45 events that are “directly or indirectly related to digital topics”, said Maasikas.

A virtual reality installation will be set up in the EU's Council building in Brussels, so that those who cannot attend events in Tallinn will be able to experience them in 3D through a live-streamed broadcast.

On 29 September, there will also be an EU summit devoted to digital affairs in Tallinn.

An Estonian presidency source, who on Monday briefed journalists on the condition of anonymity, said they were “close to full participation” by all 28 EU leaders.

USB condoms

The Estonian government is also using the presidency to raise awareness of cyber security.

The official gift pack will include a USB data blocker - a device that allows you to charge a mobile device in a public location via USB, while preventing any data from being removed, or viruses being installed.

Estonian diplomats announcing it at a recent press briefing referred to the gadget as a “USB condom”.

Deputy minister Maasikas said Europe should be “the place where innovation happens first”.

“Technological innovation in itself is not the end game, but a tool that can make the lives of people, companies and governments easier,” he noted.

Brexit

The Estonian presidency, which takes over from the Maltese, was originally not due to start until 1 January 2018.

However, because the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU, the British EU presidency was cancelled, and the Estonians stepped in.

The Brexit decision shook the foundations of the EU, and while Maasikas said the union is not yet “out of the woods”, he noted support for the EU is on the rise again.

“When we look back to this in a couple of years time, maybe 2017 was the darkest before the dawn,” he said.

“For the EU, there is now the need to earn and re-earn the legitimacy from our citizens. The need is greater than ever.”

In addition to rolling issues and Estonia's own pet peeves, there will be an additional factor that may keep the presidency busy: sudden crises.

“There are things that you can plan, and there are things that you can't,” said Maasikas.

Although Maasikas had mentioned migration as a personal concern, he did not want to name a single presidency priority.

“If you want one priority … it's to have a situation by the end of the year, that we all can say: yes, 2017 was a better year for the EU than 2016. As simple as that,” he said.

Malta aims to 'restore faith' in EU

The Mediterranean island will take the six-month EU presidency on 1 January, with migration and security as main priorities.

EU presidency strengthened Slovakia's government

Prime minister Robert Fico gained EU and domestic praise for his six month at EU helm, but the far right is still on the rise in a country where Europe is still not a top issue.

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