Since joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004, Estonia has been an exemplar of rationality and democratic values, becoming the epitome of digital innovation, openness, and budgetary balance. This can be exemplified by looking at the peak of the global financial crisis in 2008 when Estonia quickly took austerity measures to overcome the crisis, setting a model for other states in the EU. Despite painful reforms and budgetary constraints, Estonia’s liberal and conservative political parties retained their popularity. For nearly two decades, a liberal social consensus existed: with each year of independence, Estonians expected that their civil society and democratic institutions would grow ever stronger.
Then, an unexpected change occurred in 2014-15 fracturing this flawless image. A previously marginal anti-European populist party, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), started gaining popularity. In 2010, support for EKRE stood around 2-3%. By July 2019, it was around 20%. There are many reasons for this dramatic arise. First, a wider social dissatisfaction with the policies of previous coalition parties that had become more and more blind or ineffective toward some social problems (inward and outward migration, sovereignty, and economic sustainability) or groups (farmers, people with lower income, etc) took root. Next to these specific factors, the rise in popularity of radical right-wing parties was bolstered by a wider growth in popularity of radical and anti-European parties in Central and East Europe. Third, the popularity of EKRE was also made possible by political problems of the Centre Party and the Conservatives, both suffering from a lack of long-term political vision and declining financial support.
In the March 2019 parliamentary elections, EKRE received the third-best result, defeating many traditional parties, such as the left-leaning Social Democrats and the conservative Pro Patria. EKRE’s strong result allowed it not only to join the governing coalition, but also to become the dominant voice in dictating the political agenda. This was possible due to the strong mutual mistrust between former coalition members (Reform Party, Social Democrats, and Centre Party) and the desire to take the prime minister position between two winning parties, the Reform Party and the Centre Party.
This political change was not caused by economic woes or by mistrust towards the EU. Estonia has had average economic growth of roughly 4% since 2016, and Eurobarometer surveys from 2019 show that trust in the EU is 69%, after a slight decline during the 2015 refugee crisis (which drove the initial popularity of EKRE).
Ideologically, EKRE descends from Estonia’s ethno-nationalist rural movement, which emerged during the so-called Singing Revolution that led Estonia to regain independence in the early 1990s. Institutionally, electorally, and in terms of party membership, it relies on the former Soviet collective farm-related circles. In its yearning for the lost paradise, the ethnic imagery coalesces with the highly paid agricultural sector from Soviet times. Yet, ideologically, it does not want to rebuild the Soviet system. Rural roots, predominantly free-market economics, and clear anti-Russian attitudes differentiate EKRE from many other anti-EU radical parties in Europe. Overall, the party sees the survival of Estonian ethnicity and culture as its main objective.
EKRE’s message is that the local political elite—“the establishment”—restricts the sovereignty of ordinary Estonians, and proclaims that EKRE is the only political party protecting them. EKRE criticizes institutions such as courts and universities, European integration, the media, minorities, and foreigners. As a result, the party’s rhetoric is often confusing and illogical. On top of this, EKRE—now a leading partner in the national government and itself a member of the political elite—contrasts itself with another mysterious element of “the establishment,” i.e., a “deep state” that is “bullying” the party. EKRE’s attitude towards Russia is also controversial. The party has been openly hostile toward Russia, yet it recently hosted Marine Le Pen despite her many pro-Russian statements. The leaders have also publicly approved some political initiatives of Vladimir Putin.
European elections in May 2019—where EKRE won one of the country’s seven seats—confirmed its Euroscepticism. The party put forward the slogan, “We protect Estonia’s independence in Europe.” It argued that EU institutions hold too much supranational power and that the bloc should focus on the economic aims of European integration like free trade and competitiveness, while staying as simple, unregulated, and intergovernmental as possible. EKRE represents a line of Euro-populists who rely on polarization between the interests of the “EU elite” and member states.
In its political manifesto, it proposed several radical ideas regarding the EU. It suggested amending the Lisbon Treaty to make it less federal and more intergovernmental in order to protect the sovereignty of the member states. Yet, it has no concrete proposal for how to do this. It demanded that EU members receive equal treatment, both in terms of representation in the European Parliament and in the bloc’s agricultural payments. It also argued that member states sharing values, such as protecting national sovereignty, should enhance cooperation. Simultaneously, EKRE declared the EU should protect Christian culture and traditional European values, primarily by stopping immigration and deporting illegal immigrants. Estonian populists’ vision for the future of Europe is relatively clear. At the same time, EKRE does not believe in “hard Euroscepticism” or “anti-Europeanism.” The party believes the EU should respect any nation’s wish to join or leave the bloc, but it does not favor Estonia’s withdrawal.
EKRE’s success in the Estonian and European parliamentary elections in 2019 has given the party a platform to promote its ideas. EKRE now holds 19 of 101 seats in Estonia’s parliament. Since the formation of Estonia’s new government in April 2019, EKRE has been the dominant coalition partner, forcing its political agenda through skillful manipulation of public opinion. This strong posture has created conflicts domestically and at the EU level. For instance, Finance Minister and EKRE member Martin Helme declared that Estonia should have a veto right over additional payments from the European Stability Mechanism, a pan-European fund, making this demand without consulting the prime minister or coalition partners.
Today, public debate no longer focuses on the political, social, and cultural differences between Estonians and the Russian minority. EKREʼs rhetoric is perplexing to many Estonians and has polarized society based on gender, ethnicity, and education level. Now, the focus is on growing differences within the Estonian community itself. Estonia’s two main opposition parties, the Reform Party and the Social Democrats, contribute to the country’s polarization, declaring that Estonia has turned away from European democratic values. However, it is worth noting that the same parties vocally supporting liberal values today played a major role in leading Estonia to its current political situation. Many Estonians are tired of being the EU’s “poster child.” They are stressed by socio-economic changes and feel left out from political debates. They are afraid of immigration, but worry a lot about emigration, too, as Estonians seek higher-paying jobs in other EU countries. EKRE has provided a forum to express this frustration.
To fight populism in Estonia, other parties must convince the population that it does not need to be protected from the state or the EU. To quote Estonia’s slogan in its successful UN General Assembly campaign to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council: “Everyone has the right to respect and dignity.” The same principle should apply in Estonia itself. The EU will also need to demonstrate that European integration is not a project driven exclusively by the elite that only benefits the center. The European project is especially important to Europe’s smaller states.