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"Macron Will Find a Potential Ally in Estonia’s President", The Wall Street Journal

Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia's president, sees the EU as a positive force though in need of reshaping.
© Peti Kollanyi/Bloomberg News


By Valentina Pop

Estonia assumes EU's rotating presidency next month; both leaders are political newcomers.

FLORENCE, Italy— Emmanuel Macron has a potential ally in Estonia, which will soon be a big fish in Brussels.

Tiny Estonia takes on an outsize role next month when it assumes the European Union's rotating presidency and kicks off Brexit talks. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said Brexit negotiations shouldn't distract the bloc from moving ahead.

Ms. Kaljulaid, like the French president, is a political newcomer who emerged as a dark horse to win election in October, backed by a large majority. Both are the youngest-ever presidents of their countries, and both see the EU as a positive force, though in need of reshaping.

"The EU is a common platform where we come together and agree to do certain things. But the EU is never going to take over the responsibility which governments have, for prosperity and security of their people," Ms. Kaljulaid, 46 years old, said in an interview Friday on the margins of an EU conference in Florence and before Mr. Macron's decisive victory over nationalist, anti-EU Marine Le Pen.

Ms. Kaljulaid, Estonia's first female president and a former member of the EU's European Court of Auditors, acknowledged the bloc's failings but said its benefits to citizens outweigh its shortcomings.

"The EU is very popular in Estonia, and for very good reasons—not because Estonia has received considerable support from the EU, but because Europe supports the values which keep small states safe in this world. Everybody has the right to decide their own fate," she said.

Ms. Kaljulaid dismissed the idea that the European project faced an existential crisis. She blamed politicians who criticize Brussels in their home countries while helping form EU policies with fellow members.

"I am very worried about politicians who know that their countries are greatly benefiting financially and at the same time are saying that the European Union is not good for us. The message has to be coherent," she said.

Holding the presidency for six months will allow Estonia to set priorities for the bloc's policy-making machinery and decide on the agendas of ministers' meetings. Estonian officials will also represent the EU governments in debates with the European Parliament and on trips abroad.

Like Mr. Macron, Ms. Kaljulaid has a vision of a reformed Europe.

"The EU probably needs to concentrate more on issues which are by definition cross-border: environment, big infrastructure, migration crisis, protection from terrorism," she said. "And there may be room to think if we could do less where national governments can manage better."

For example, she wants to see areas such as scientific research, on which the EU already spends billions of euros annually, boosted significantly to bolster cross-border, pan-European projects. Other areas, such as EU programs to encourage children to stay in school, should be left to national governments, she said.

And even where the EU is often seen as failing, she sees some hope. Starting with the 2008 global financial crisis, which almost broke up the eurozone, through the 2015 migration wave that pitted EU countries against each other, Ms. Kaljulaid observed a pattern in which EU countries were seen as bickering too much and then acting too little.

"But the final result is," she said, "countries always get solutions before it's too late."

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