Moral cowardice. Greed. Stupidity. Those are the reasons that the current German leadership lacks the political will to send favorable signals to Ukraine and Georgia about future NATO and EU membership, according to one foreign policy thinker.
This hesitance does influence other wobbly policies in adjacent Western European countries like France and Spain, and yet the trail of breadcrumbs seems to lead us back to Berlin’s grand coalition of Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Aye, the stench of the German Social Democratic Party is in the air on the eve of the NATO Bucharest Summit.
This weekend’s Lennart Meri Conference was in someways a coming together of the European center-right. The representatives of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were not to be found. And while Lennart’s soul is kept alive with anecdotes about a chain smoking Estonian intellectual with a whimsical love of history and a way with quick oneliners, I felt that the real soul of the conference was Mart Laar, who during his turn on the panel sat with his laptop open, presumably keeping abreast of world events while the other interviewees tried to explain European integration with metaphors about love making.
“Is he it?” I thought to myself. “The new, living embodiment of Estonia — absorbed by the questions of the day and distracted by his beloved technology?” Laar strikes a nice balance between the Estonian Ambassador to NATO Jüri Luik, who seems a quiet and tough patriot, and President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who without notice might color his arguments by referencing Wittgensteinian philosophers, the 1970s Philadelphia city government, and IKEA.
And Laar is from the parempool — the right wing. My inner journalist cries out for some social democrats to counter the onslaught this union of right forces, maybe former Finnish PM Paavo Lipponen, or Schroeder himself. Please, come, make them mad so we can have a good show. But the truth is that they probably weren’t invited because of their association with moral cowardice, greed, and stupidity.
It’s as one Finnish analyst put it during a morning session. He said the Finnish NATO debate was being defined as a conflict between ‘Nokia’ Finns, who wish to integrate completely with Western institutions, and ‘Muumin’ Finns, the idealists who question the need for such a common security arrangement with the majority of their neighbors. I mean collective security, who needs it?!
Finnish FM Ilkka Kanerva was supposed to attend a session this morning, but he supposedly had to return prematurely to Helsinki to face up to the text message scandal. When I asked a Finn if he would like to see the personable social democrat Erkki Tuomioja back in the FM’s seat should Kanerva step down, he told me that he liked Erkki’s style, but he hoped that the Finnish Social Democrats would stay in political opposition in the Eduskunta for a long, long time
From the Estonian perspective these ‘Muumin’ Finns and Norwegians and Swedes and Germans are seen as untrustworthy. They were the ones who pleaded with the Baltic independence movements to not rock Gorbachev’s boat back in the late 1980s. They were apparently very wrong, and their silence and sweetheart, sauna diplomacy since has soiled the legacy of social democracy. Those of us who grew up in awe of the capability of these dynamic northern countries to educate and care for their masses are now turned off by the morphing of social democracy into Schrödocracy, a self-interested coziness with illiberalism and little else.
It’s the reason why there are so few Western European social democrats involved in the important debates of today. They have become stale and irrelevant. As someone pointed out over lunch, “Why would you even bother to invite the European left to a place like this when they have nothing to say?”
Nothing to say, and yet, Estonia could learn something from the Muumin welfare vikings from across the Baltic Sea. Estonia wants to transition from a low-cost, low-skill economy of tourism, transport, and manufacture, to a high-skill, high-pay economy of technological innovation — the kind of society embodied by Laar and his laptop.
Yet do the Estonians really get the kind of state support that their northern brethren do in Finland and Sweden? People travel from all over the world to study at the Karolinska Institute or the University of Helsinki. And they go on to found university spin-outs that make the Nordic countries among the most competitive economies in the world. Much fewer are those who take the bus to Tartu, Estonia instead.
I would like to believe that the reason for these small, relatively remote countries success has less to do with them being of superior genetic stock, as one disgruntled German World War I veteran put it, and more to do with the fact that their governments invest heavily in their people and the investment tends to pay off. And so, despite its moral cowardice, greed, and stupidity, European social democracy has had some benefits.
Driving through the streets of Tallinn last night, I got an earful from an Estonian taxi driver named Vladimir. As we zoomed through Telliskivi, the taxi drove into a deep puddle, and you could feel the frame of the car scrape the ruined asphalt beneath as the car pulled its way out.
“Now that we are in the EU, we have EU prices,” he opined in accented Estonian. “We don’t have European roads, or European salaries, or European service. But we do have European prices.” I pointed out that EU structural funds were being spent on renovations on the Tallinn-Tartu road. “They are going to have to renovate more than road around the airport,” Vladimir said. “These roads are destroying our cabs, and who pays for the repairs? We do.”
He’s right. European integration has brought economic miracles to downtown Tallinn. But drive a little bit deeper into the residential neighborhoods and you’ll wonder when the invisible hand of the marketplace will manage to make their sidewalks walkable and streets navigable. As for those poor dopes in the countryside, well, they’ll have to wait especially long for the invisible hand to reach them. Most probably think that it will never come at all.
It would seem like these day-to-day issues would be a boon to proponents of social democracy. Fix the city roads; fix the city plumbing. Fund the universities; bring in the talent; reorient the economy. Demonstrate the capability of government to positively impact the average Vladimir’s life. But no, Europe’s social democrats are probably too busy cutting gas deals with Gazprom and smiling for the camera to take advantage of such opportunities. It makes me really mad.
The only thing that could distract my political malaise was people watching in Old Town. As I turned down a narrow medieval street after a deeply moving performance of Arvo Pärt’s music at the Niguliste Kirik, I was stopped by a British youth in front of Olde Hansa, the living embodiment of Estonia’s tourism industry.
‘Pardon me, mate, but are you from around here?’ he asked.
‘Uh … sort of,’ I replied.
‘Do you know where I can get some cocaine?’ he smiled.
‘Cocaine, huh?’ I said. ‘Well, you could try the McDonalds down the street for a hamburger instead.’
He looked at me a bit weird and then said in a perplexed voice, ‘a hamburger?’ I walked off, leaving him to the lights of the Raekoja Plats.