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Estonia visit reinforces its importance in future of Europe

Very ably and thoughtfully led by Mark Pritchard MP for The Wrekin, our UK parliamentary delegation visiting Estonia from 9-13 May 2016 consisted of Helen Jones (MP for Warrington North), Graham Jones (MP for Hyndburn), Jonathan Djanogly (MP for Huntingdon), and from the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat stalwart Alan Beith and me. It was a group reflecting party balance and wide political experience. Sophia Ostler, our superb BGIPU guide and the UK Ambassador, Chris Holtby, and his team provided an outstanding programme whose focus was Estonia and the UK’s shared defence and security concerns.

The leitmotiv of our engagement with Estonian politicians was expressed by the Chair of their Foreign Affairs Committee who declared that, having re-won independence from the Soviet Union/Russia, Estonia was wedded and welded to the European Union and NATO. “Never Alone Again!” their stirring motto! In contrast we left the UK behind contemplating a BREXIT, leaving our interlocutors baffled and banjaxed! Our first two meetings within the Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministries were illuminating.

The positive contribution of Estonia to NATO peace-keeping in some 13 countries abroad including Mali and Afghanistan was rightly celebrated. And the forthcoming NATO Summit in July in Warsaw was judged to be an opportunity for the precarious Baltic situation to be addressed. Obama’s historic visit to Estonia on the eve of the last NATO Summit in Wales had been hugely valued. Following Russian annexation of Crimea, its sorties into Eastern Ukraine, its hand-puppetry in Syria, all stood as backdrop to the urgent plea by the Estonians and the other Baltic states that only by an unequivocal and enhanced, forward commitment of NATO troops and equipment might a terrible miscalculation and an act of adventurism by Vladimir Putin be avoided in respect of the Baltic.

Our private dinner with the UK Ambassador was, as ever with our outstanding cadre of ambassadors abroad, truly interesting and instructive as starters for the rest of our visit. We were cautioned that easy assumptions like the fact that 26% Russian-speaking Estonians are wholly dedicated to Estonia. Our later visit to Narva on the Russian border convinced us to take a more nuanced view.

Our visit the following day to the Estonian Parliament, set in golden sunlight and stunning surrounding architecture, culminated in our lively exchange with the President, who immediately praised Leicester City on winning the Premier League. Not only is there a small expat community of Estonians found in Leicester, but there was a distinct feeling that the President identified the plucky, Ranieri Blues with Estonia, “a small state near a Big Bear”, living through an uneasy cold peace. “We trust in the EU, not Russia!” affirmed the genial President.

Our meeting with the EU Committee of Parliament was an eye-opener. Jonathan Djanogly asked what would happen in the event of a Brexit. This stirred into life the till then brooding former Prime Minister Juhan Parts. He embarked on an impassioned defence of the EU as the best instrument for co-ordinating 28 disparate member states across Europe. The lively conversation spilled over into lunch with the IPU Friendship Group.

Our Leader, Mark Pritchard, asked me to chair our meeting in the Ministry of Finance. I had chaired two informal meetings in the House of Lords with Estonia’s Finance Minister in 2013 and 2014. On the second occasion he presented me with a set of the Estonian Euro coins as they became the 19th member of the Eurozone. Given Estonia’s role in the Euro, its participation in all the financial regulation, and its own stunning economic recovery through a period of accentuated austerity and simplified tax raising instruments, any future visit should focus on what we can learn from our Estonian colleagues about running an economy, experimenting with a simplified tax regime and binding into EU financial regulation. On a more muted note, we did learn that Estonian productivity was suffering – again a fertile conversation to be had as the UK continues to experience parlous productivity problems!

Our day visit to Narva on the Russian border was wholly intriguing. We saw for ourselves the Bridge over the river separating Russia and Narva, with long queues of traffic trying to transit. EU money had spruced up the Estonian bank whereas the Russian bank looked dowdy. Having met and conversed with the Mayor and councillors over lunch, where again I noted the universality of good spoken English by our hosts, we visited the local (teacher trainer) College, led by the gifted Director Kristina Kallas.

The architectural mini-masterpiece housed students keenly learning. Some lounged on comfortable bean-bags liberally distributed throughout the well-equipped library. The College was principally tasked with serving the Russian-speaking local population but was fast branching out, inspired by the Director’s urgent entrepreneurial spirit. Thus, the College uses the premises to the full, even housing American summer students eager to learn Russian. I was astonished that the Director accomplished all this activity with just 20 academics and 25 administrative staff. Such admirable industry and application! A side note on universities: for a country of only 1.3 million people, their excellent universities do not cover the academic curriculum required for the country to be self-sufficient. Surely, a golden opportunity for UK collaboration! We broke off our return to Tallinn by calling in at Tapa Army Base for a very good briefing on the US NATO troops engaged in training with our Estonian colleagues.

A foretaste of the following day’s spotlight on Estonia’s E-technology revolution was made by the Ambassador. Passing by the voluminous Baltic forests, the Ambassador indicated the simplicity of obtaining a Christmas tree for five euros. Using e-technology you provide the co-ordinates of the chosen tree to the authorities and permission is speedily granted to cut down and bring home the prize! Pointing out the several Stork nests along our forest route home was another task taken in his stride by the Ambassador displaying his competence in Estonian flora and fauna!

The next day we studied at first hand the Information Society and Estonia’s eager espousal of e-Technology. We visited the impressive Ulemiste City, the Baltic’s biggest Technology Park strategically sited on the outskirts of Tallinn, but soon to be connected to the bold, transport network which will link Estonia with Eastern and Central Europe. It is an ambition which I admire whilst back home we temporise on HS2, providing airport capacity for the UK and in Parliament procrastinate on embracing a Paperless Parliament.

On our visit to the vibrant Starship Robots enterprise, we met many enthusiastic young employees. Like Lincoln Steffens a century before, I would like to say “I have seen the Future and it works!” but robotic delivery vehicles (and Drones at Home for that matter!) leave me gasping. I too badly need Re-programming!

Our visit to the eEstonia Showroom illustrated well the profound conversion Estonian has undergone to embrace an advanced digital society. The House of Lords Financial Exclusion Select Committee, on which I will sit, will tackle practical difficulties in converting to e-Society. Replacing chequebooks, for example, for those of us less e-Friendly and adept to paperless change illustrates the care that will be needed to facilitate such change which in the end will doubtless benefit all members of Society. Our visit to Cybernetica, focussing on eGovernment, cyber security and telematics, tellingly reminded us that Estonia, a decade earlier had undergone the first ever hostile cyber-attack as a modern State. This, in turn, reminded us of the changing nature of warfare, and the need to adopt defence and security embedded in a modern and sophisticated context.

Our final day was outstanding. We returned to core questions of Defence and Security. Our being piped aboard HMS Iron Duke behind our multi-tasking ambassador, was joy alone. But our exchanges on board with the Estonian joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees drove home the primacy and priority of the Estonians (whatever their party persuasions) continuing existence as an independent and proud country, wholly rooted in the EU and NATO.

A meeting with NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, was sandwiched between the Press Conference of the International Centre for Defence and Security Report of the Defence Posture in the Baltic, and a working lunch with the authors of the report, all Generals of immense experience and knowledge. This was perhaps our best meeting. Graham Jones and Mark Pritchard so capably led for us. It was an immense pleasure and wholly instructive to share thoughts with Gen. Wes Clarke (ex NATO Supreme Commander), Gen. Richard Shirreff (ex NATO Deputy Supreme Commander) and Gen Egon Ramms. We were left in no doubt of the supreme strategic importance of Estonia in the network of NATO and yes of the EU. I was mightily impressed that General Shirreff, whose novel detailing an unfriendly invasion of the Baltic States featured on the Today programme on our return, asserted so roundly of the complementary roles of NATO and the EU in procuring our common security and defence.

I was pleased on my return to the Lords to mention my parliamentary visit to the Estonia in the Debate responding to Queen’s Speech. Baroness Neville-Rolfe, as Business Minister, confirmed that she was conspiring with Estonia and Bulgaria, as succeeding EU presidencies to the UK Presidency in late 2017, to further shared objectives of developing the digital economy in the Single Market.

This was the first BGIPU visit to Estonia in 20 years. We should not neglect these small, but dynamic EU countries who are so important to us. In the immediate future, we can do much to help guide their forthcoming first EU Presidency. We should grasp that golden opportunity. I was very pleased to be part of so interesting a visit in which my public policy interests were broadened and deepened. I enjoyed the company and the programme and am ever more convinced that UK MPs should be compulsory made to visit other countries, learn languages and generally smarten up, if they are to guide our wonderful country intelligently in an ever broadening and changing world.

Lord Harrison