Estonia continues on a pro-Western course

Liisa Talving

The 2015 Estonian general elections saw a close battle between the ruling Reform Party and the leading opposition force, the Centre Party. With pre-election polls predicting similar results for both parties, voters decided to back the incumbents in elections that initially focused on economic issues but in reality ended up being over-shadowed by popular concerns over national security. Tightening the race for the old players, two small parties succeeded in entering the political arena. The fact that six parties secured seats in the national parliament led to a more proportional representation of voters in the Estonian legislature.

E-voting continues to spread 

A total of 64.2% of eligible voters in Estonia turned out to cast their votes in the seventh parliamentary elections since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first time, more people decided to cast a ballot during the pre-election period than on polling day on Sunday March 1st raising the question of whether to expand campaign restrictions to a longer period of time than only on an actual election day. The popularity of ‘pre-elections’ can be attributed to remote electronic voting with nearly one-third of participants now casting their votes online. In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to have state-wide local elections where voters could cast ballots over the Internet and since then eight ‘e-enabled’ elections have been held. As Figure 1 shows, the proportion of e-voters has increased steadily in each subsequent election of a similar type. Over the past decades, the diffusion of e-voting has taken place in Estonia. Initially a small distinct group of people, e-voters have now become less and less distinguishable from regular paper ballot voters, indicating that people have simply changed their means of voting (Vassil et al. 2014).

Figure 1: Share of e-voters of all participating voters in elections in Estonia

Figure 1: Share of e-voters of all participating voters in elections in Estonia

Source: Estonian Electoral Committee

The election campaign focused primarily on domestic economic issues. However, the topic remained largely incomprehensible to voters, and concerns over national security emerged as the key theme of the elections. The Pro Patria and Res Publica Union managed to move the topic of taxation to the centre of the pre-election political debate. The economy remained a prominent matter in the public eye after sharp austerity measures were introduced to cope with the consequences of the economic crisis that hit Estonia hard. However, topics like tensions in Greece have remained distant for the Estonian voter, hence EU issues did not appear salient in the campaign which rather revolved around domestic economic matters. But by concentrating on taxes, Pro Patria shifted the focus away from defence issues which the party was typically associated with. This enabled the governing Reform Party, despite historically not having ownership of this issue, to successfully adopt the image of a leading expert on security. The Reform Party’s conservative rhetoric worked amid the country’s on-going anxiety over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Fears over Russia’s potential moves to destabilise the Baltic States are widespread in Estonia where a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians. The Estonian authorities and media expressed significant discontent over the fact that the EU did not react quickly or strongly enough to Russia’s military invention in Ukraine. The expectations of both the EU and NATO are high in terms of their role in preserving the stability in the region. Sanctions were largely applauded, even though they brought with them challenges to local businesses in terms of restricting trade with Russia.

Victory for incumbents amid security concerns

Pre-election polls predicted a tight contest between the two major actors, occasionally showing a narrow lead for the governing Reform Party and then for the opposition Centre Party. As Table 1 shows, the incumbent party won an Estonian parliamentary election for the third consecutive time securing 27.7% of the votes and 30 seats in parliament. In addition to addressing security issues effectively, the Reform Party benefited from changes in the composition of the government just two months before the May European Parliament (EP) elections last year. Strategically replacing their long-time coalition partner, the centre-right Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, with their ideological rivals, the Social Democrats, only a year before the parliamentary poll enabled the ruling party to clean up their incumbent image and led to its success in the two subsequent elections. Both junior coalition partners, on the other hand, lost voter support. Reform’s internal party cleansing was another canny pre-election manouvre. Former party leader and prime minister Andrus Ansip resigned to join the European Commission and was replaced by Taavi Rõivas who, at 35, was the youngest head of a government in Europe and provided a breath of fresh air for a longstanding dominant political force which had suffered from severe scandals over party funding.

Table 1: Results of the 2015 parliamentary elections in Estonia

Party Vote % Seats in parliament Change in seats from 2011
Estonian Reform Party 27.7 30 -3
Estonian Center Party 24.8 27 +1
Social Democratic Party 15.2 15 -4
Pro Patria and Res Publica Union 13.7 14 -9
Estonian Free Party 8.7 8 +8
Estonian Conservative People’s Party 8.1 7 +7
Others 1.8
Total 100 101
Turnout 64.2 (+0.7% from 2011)

Source: Estonian Electoral Committee

The fundamental rivalry between the Reform Party and the Centre Party was the focus of attention in the fortnight running up to election day with the former advertising its pro-Western beliefs and the latter failing to publicly dis-approve of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The even poll numbers led to Reform alarming voters about their opponent getting too close to victory, which helped the incumbents to mobilize their supporters. The social centrist opposition party obtained most of its votes from Russian speakers and, against the backdrop of ethnic divisions among the population following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, appeared to lose touch with its Estonian voters. Nevertheless, the Centre Party achieved a decent result being the only one of four parliamentary parties who managed to increase their share of seats (up one seat to 27). Party leader Edgar Savisaar had a remarkable result gathering the largest number of votes (25,055) that anyone had ever obtained in an Estonian general election since the country re-gained its independence. The Centre Party owed its success to a number of strong candidates, although many of the most successful acted purely as vote-magnets for the party and had no intention of giving up their current positions in order to become MPs. These included Mr Savisaar himself, who is Mayor of Tallinn, his Deputy Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (10,996 votes) and MEP Yana Toom (11,574 votes). Moreover, the Centre, which has ties with Vladmir Putin’s United Russia party, only has a strong position in two regions, Tallinn and Eastern Estonia, where the concentration of Russian-speakers is high, and once again remained in the ‘second division’ as far as national politics was concerned.

New political forces emerge 

Two parties were labelled as the losers of the 2015 elections. The Social Democrats (down four seats to 15) were thought to have suffered from their decision to enter the government just one year before the elections. Being the Reform Party’s junior coalition partner meant taking joint responsibility for some decisions that their traditional supporters may have not have approved of. Furthermore, the Social Democrats failed to fulfill their potential in drawing votes from the Estonian Russian-speaking community, an electorate they were desperately trying to seize. The national conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union saw the most notable decline in voter support (down nine seats to 14) and, as a result, faces a change in party leadership. Being in opposition after switching governing places with the Social Democrats could have been an opportunity to bolster the party’s image but the previous three years in the coalition did not leave it in a position strong enough to confront the incumbents, so the party was left to play the role of a bitter by-stander. Internal divisions and an incorrectly focused campaign targeting low-income voters instead of its traditional intellectual core supporters added further confusion and unambiguity to the party’s campaign. Attempts to boost the party’s support by recruiting well-known public figures, such as journalists and TV presenters, did not bring the expected results either.

Although the true vote-switching dynamics can only be un-masked when analysing post-election surveys, both of the losing parties were thought to have surrendered a part of their votes to two newcomers: the Free Party (8 seats) and the Conservative People’s Party (7 seats). Two fringe parties stepping into the political arena and passing the 5% electoral threshold for the first time in years was one of the leitmotifs of the 2015 elections and a clear indication of Estonian voters’ yearning for freshness. The Free Party is closest to the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union on the political spectrum but also shared a fair amount of crossover with the Social Democrats. A combination of independent intellectuals together with former Pro Patria members, the party stood for a more open governing system against the current domination of the four establishment parties, but was criticized for not having a clear and consistent ideology.

Another newcomer, the Conservatives, were not a new party on the Estonian political landscape but only witnessed marginal support up until now. The rise of the right-wing Conservatives, similar to those seen in other European countries, was not motivated by the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ events in France but was rather a reaction to recent heated debates over the introduction of a partnership law in Estonia which allowed same-sex couples to legalise their partnerships and receive similar benefits to married couples. The topic created ideological divisions among the population and enabled the Conservatives to rally support among the majority who disapproved of the draft act. The anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Russian Conservative party has already gained attention in a scandal over one member’s blog post praising the positive sides of Nazi Germany and the far-right activities of its youth movement.

The triumphant Reform Party opened up negotiations to establish a majority in the 101-seat parliament and form a new government. Excluded from the talks were Reform’s two main ideological rivals: the opposition Centre Party and the radical right-wing Conservatives. The new coalition will comprise either three or four members, providing the main governing party with a stronger position compared with its smaller negotiation partners. While the growth in the number of parties in the parliament and cabinet boosted representation, various analysts expressed scepticism about the longevity of the new alliance, arguing that history provided no examples of such a diverse coalition surviving the entire four-year electoral term in Estonia. The inclusion of the Free Party, with its high inner heterogeneity and no previous parliamentary experience, added to these concerns. Nonetheless, the primary course of the new government is likely to be maintaining a stable course both in economic and security policy.

Liisa Talving is a doctoral candidate in comparative politics at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu.

The Making of Eurosceptic Britain

Chris Gifford

No longer on the margins and extremes of party politics, Euroscepticism’s ‘coming in from the cold’ (Taggart and Szczerbiak 2013) has significant implications for how we approach the subject. Sofia Vasilopoulou (2013) argues that it is time to re-think the history of European integration, viewing Euroscepticism as central to its history rather than as an aberration. Simon Usherwood and Nick Startin (2013) have called for more holistic, nuanced and interdisciplinary approaches that can address Euroscepticism’s persistence and complexity. While I was writing my new edition of The Making of Eurosceptic Britain (Ashgate 2014), I became increasingly aware that I was working in an emerging field (Eurosceptic Studies?) in which the conceptual and theoretical landscape was changing. The book hopefully contributes to this widening of the Eurosceptic lens by exploring British Euroscepticism historically, as an embedded and structural feature of British politics. Such an approach, while arguably sacrificing depth, examines and evidences continuities across time as different actors encounter situational contexts that lead them to make and remake Eurosceptic Britain.

Many of the difficulties surrounding Britain’s relationship with the EU I believe have their roots in the political struggles over membership in the 1960s and 1970s. For much of the 1950s, British elites encountered European integration as antithetical to Britain as a global power, operating in partnership with the US in pursuit of a liberal economic order. For all of the changes brought about by the post-war settlement, the state retained an outlook that was cosmopolitan and imperial rather than national and corporatist. A post-imperial crisis was a consequence of the closing stages of this regime, characterised by absolute political and relative economic decline in the face of global Fordism under Pax Americana. It was in this sense a crisis of modernisation and the ‘turn to Europe’ represented a highly contested and problematic response to this situation. It contrasted with post-war European reconstruction that successfully linked national projects of modernisation with the political and economic organisation of Western Europe.

Post-Suez the Europe option was therefore an elite strategy associated with decline and failure. For the Macmillan government it emerged as the only option for retaining some degree of British influence in the world and economic survival, as the Commonwealth option receded. When the Wilson government decided to renew the British application, it was a response to its own governing crisis in the wake of the collapse of its plan for national modernisation. Following the failure of the second application, the fragile consensus on membership that had been established across the political class fractured. By the time that the Heath government successfully negotiated membership, Britain faced chronic economic problems, industrial strife and civil war in Northern Ireland. Europe was as much about crisis management as it was about a new direction, and both main parties entered the 1970s divided on the issue. A central argument of the book is that the governing position on Europe has been as much about continuity as it has about change. In particular, it has been important in maintaining the UK as a globalised economy, re-assuring large-scale capital and the City and providing an entry point to Europe for US multinationals.

The 1970s signalled the rise of populist Euroscepticism as a political phenomenon; politicians on both the left and right were prepared to sacrifice party unity for an issue they considered to be fundamental to ‘the British people’. The first period of Eurosceptic mobilisation took place from the 1971 ‘Great Debate’ on membership, to accession and the 1975 referendum. Populist Euroscepticism is a central theme running throughout the book. I consider it to be an outcome of the post-imperial context and conceived as a broad-based, albeit fragmented, movement mobilising and configuring national and political identities. As such it transcends the mainstream party system to include: populist protest and anti-establishment parties; policy, pressure and interest groups; civil society organisations independent of political parties; and, importantly, a large segment of the national press. EU membership could not be debated without invoking the nation and ‘the people’. Europe was re-imagined by Eurosceptic forces as the ‘other’ of British political identity and interests. It was symbolically constituted as a threat to Britain’s exceptional social and political development.

Once Europe had become a populist political issue, what we find is that it was no longer contained by the party system and the capacity to establish the kind of political consensus on the issue that was evident in other member states proved impossible. This was evident in the relationship between Thatcherism and Euroscepticism. The early Thatcher governments successfully de-politicised the European issue. They exploited the budgetary issue and the drive for the single market. The Conservative leadership faced little opposition from within the party and was able to occupy the political mainstream in the face of Labour’s left-wing Euroscepticism. However, in the face of the drive for economic and monetary unification, Thatcherism was reconfigured as a right wing populist Euroscepticism that asserted a globalised free market nationalism in opposition to a regulated social Europe. The issue became fundamental and divisive within the Conservative party. The Major government struggled to maintain governing autonomy in the face of party rebellions and Eurosceptic mobilisations. Moreover, Britain’s ejection from the exchange rate mechanism reasserted a national approach to monetary policy that put paid to joining the Eurozone in the first wave. The consolidation of Thatcherism in Britain effectively marginalised the European cause in Britain. It was consistent with the identification of British patriotic and national interest with an unstable US global hegemony. The Tory Europeanism of Macmillan and Heath, also associated with a new wave of modernisers such as Heseltine and Clarke, was the main casualty of the Conservative party’s 1990s European wars.

The dominance of Euroscepticism was also evident in the failure of Labour under Blair and Brown to establish its European credentials, and the Eurosceptic nationalism that came to typify its dealings with the EU. While Labour was prepared to Europeanise policy and accept a reduced role for national governments in decision-making, this was legitimated on the belief in British leadership and influence. This was an attempt to renew the governing strategy on Europe in the guise of Third Way modernisation. While it affirmed Britain’s continued membership of the EU, it was also complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. This was illustrative of how British governments have not just expressed distinctive national interests in the process of European integration, but have been a vehicle for international and global projects that represent an alternative model of politico-economic development.

Labour’s attempt to remodel British-Europeanism depended upon constructing an Anglo-Europe rooted in its project of a financially-driven but progressive globalisation. This proved increasingly difficult to sustain outside of the Euro and in the face of new integrationist developments, particularly the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties. Such developments provided new opportunities for Eurosceptic mobilisations, backed by the virulent anti-Europeanism of large sections of the press, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch, which fuelled the scepticism of British public opinion. In the end the financial crisis swept away Labour’s European vision, discrediting its Third Way political economy. Meanwhile, the Eurozone crisis was successfully constituted as a threat to British economic recovery, and a dangerous experiment from which Britain must be kept apart. The ‘sinner’ states of the Eurozone provided a justification for the austerity measures of the new Coalition government.

The final substantive chapter of the book explores the Coalition government’s failure to de-politicise the European issue and turn it into a pragmatic issue of government. For the Conservative leadership, the hope was that the European Union Bill would placate Eurosceptics by putting a halt on any further integration without a referendum. This was not the case and the Eurosceptic surge that followed was consistent with the pattern that was seen in earlier mobilisations. It was an extra-parliamentary populist movement, constituted in opposition to the governing position and provided with new ammunition as the Eurozone crisis unfolded. It was particularly successful in mainstreaming the possibility of British withdrawal as a legitimate position. Notably, the low salience of EU issues for domestic public opinion was challenged by high profile concerns about immigration, as controls on the free movement Bulgarians and Romanians came to an end.

The rise of UKIP in polls and elections signalled the coming of age of an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic populism to which the Conservative leadership struggled to find a response to. The concession by Cameron of a future referendum on membership left the Conservative leadership in the unenviable position of having to achieve significant EU reform in line with British ideas of an open and flexible EU. This looked increasingly unlikely in the face of other member-states’ resistance to treaty change. Moreover, a competences review designed to provide the basis for a possible reform agenda largely supported the status quo. It demonstrated the extent to which British governance and policy had become transnational and Europeanised largely in line with the ideas of functional integration that the European founding fathers had envisaged. Nevertheless, Eurosceptic arguments for a post-exit Britain along the lines of Switzerland and Norway began to enter the public debate as serious alternatives to the governing position. British political and economic power could not be ignored by the EU, so the argument went, and would enable a successful re-negotiation on favourable terms. On this view, freed from the constraints of the EU, Britain would be able to revive its global mission by building on its connections with the Anglosphere and fully exploiting global economic opportunities. Most importantly sovereignty and British democracy would be reclaimed. The arguments were reminiscent of the reasons for keeping out of the EC in the 1950s, and implied a return to Britain’s true vocation before the fateful wrong ‘turn to Europe’.

The story of Britain and Europe perfectly illustrates the dilemmas of a post-war, post-imperial state and society that, while experiencing considerable change, remains institutionally continuous in key respects. Since the 1950s, governing elites have been suspicious of the integrationist project, largely basing their arguments for British membership on pragmatic and economic arguments. Europe only fits the British governing narrative as long as it is in line with, yet subordinate to, more fundamental strategic concerns such as Atlanticism and securing global finance. Elites have regularly asserted British exceptionalism from Europe, and have been complicit in the reproduction of Eurosceptic Britain. An instrumental Europeanism has been an insufficient basis on which to secure legitimacy in a context of declining support for mainstream parties and growing distrust of elites. A pragmatic elite strategy has therefore faced sustained attack on the basis that it is antithetical to fundamental national values and identity.

The traditional institutions of British parliamentary democracy have proved ineffective in containing the European issue, particularly when ‘the people’ are invoked against Europe. Euroscepticism has therefore been concomitant with, if not the catalyst for, a revival in the idea of popular sovereignty, evident in the campaigns for referenda. There is a certain irony that this challenge to parliamentary sovereignty has come from those on the right, who see themselves as the guardians of British institutions. Cameron’s decision to support a referendum on membership represented the success of a Eurosceptic mobilisation that had been underway since Maastricht, it also signalled the exhaustion of elite attempts to accommodate Britain to European integration as a progressive project. It provided a fitting context on which to end my book. 

Dr Chris Gifford is a political sociologist at the University of Huddersfield. His research and writing explores the impact of global and trans-national conditions on states, citizenship and politics.