Estonia just took over the EU’s presidency for six months - but will its government survive that long?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 11:20pm

Days into Estonia’s rotating presidency of the European Union, the Baltic nation’s government is showing signs it may not see out the full six months.

The ruling coalition, in power since November, is at risk of losing its grip on parliament as a group of rebel lawmakers threatens to form a rival bloc for local elections in October. They could be expelled from the dominant Centre Party if they do, creating a minority government that would be more vulnerable to opposition challenges. A decision is due this week.

The political drama is a distraction for Estonia as the euro-area and Nato member takes the lead in progressing the EU’s policy agenda and hosts get-togethers of the bloc’s leaders and finance chiefs. The country of 1.3 million people, a technology hub and the birthplace of Skype, will use its stint in the spotlight to promote the digital single market, according to Prime Minister Juri Ratas, who at 38 is the EU’s youngest premier.

“It would be fairly unusual for a government to collapse at the beginning or in the middle of its EU presidency, though it wouldn’t be unprecedented,” said Andres Kasekamp, professor of Baltic Politics at Tartu University. “The first I remember was the Czech Republic. That was embarrassing, but they survived.”

That Czech government lost a no-confidence vote halfway through its EU presidency in 2009. Its term was also tainted by a reluctance to ratify the bloc’s new governing treaty and fallout from the global financial crisis that erupted the previous year.

Estonia’s last minority government, in 2009-2011, succeeded in guiding the country through its harshest recession since regaining independence in 1991 and into the euro area. Ratas is seeking to quash talk of that arrangement being repeated.

“We need to calm fears of whether the coalition is stable or not: it’s stable,” he said last week. “All three parties are very serious about their programs, about the EU presidency, and understand this responsibility.”

Discord within the Centre Party has built because of Ratas’ concessions to partners on taxation, the rights of Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority and Nato’s growing presence following President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Potential breakaways, including party founder and ex-leader Edgar Savisaar, will hold a week of “last-ditch” talks.

Ratas, whose parliamentary majority is just four seats, may be preparing for the worst. Last week he met an opposition leader whose party has eight seats and claimed he was sounded out about joining the coalition.

Matti Maasikas, Estonia’s deputy minister for EU affairs, said there’s no longer the same certainty that nothing will happen to the government during the presidency. “I still remain an optimist that Estonian politicians are responsible enough to allow us to proceed,” he said.

Estonia, once an unwilling member of the Soviet Union, has boosted its European profile. It houses a Nato cyber-defence centre and welcomed the European Central Bank for a rate-setting meeting last month.

While Brussels remains the venue for most EU gatherings, Estonia will host a September 15 meeting of finance ministers and an informal summit on digital issues two weeks later. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron may attend.

If European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker is worried about Estonian politics casting a shadow over those events, he’s not showing it.

“The presidencies of smaller countries are far more successful than those of big countries,” he said Friday in Tallinn, the capital. “I’m really impressed by the good preparations we’ve noted today of the Estonian government for this major task.”