Security Ties With Post-Brexit Britain Are Top Estonian Priority

  • Baltic nation wants to avoid Britain becoming ‘too distant’
  • Estonian Foreign Minister Ligi speaks in interview in Tallinn

Estonia doesn’t want its security relationship with the U.K. to suffer as the government in London implements the result of June’s referendum and exits the European Union.

The Baltic nation of 1.3 million people is seeking the backing of nearby countries to maintain close ties with the U.K. over regional security, Foreign Minister Jurgen Ligi said in an Oct. 7 interview. Estonia’s standing in Brexit talks will grow when it assumes the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2017.

“We’re trying to develop ideas in our region on how to keep Britons as partners in Baltic and Nordic dimension,” Ligi said in his office in Tallinn, the capital. “We’re especially focusing on the security topics.”

European countries are digesting British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to trigger the official start of Brexit talks by the end of March, as well as increasing signals that departure will include curbs on immigration and access to the single market. Estonia -- an EU, euro and NATO member that borders Russia -- is particularly concerned about defense in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s questioning of NATO’s collective-defense principle.

To read more on the U.S. election’s implications for Estonia, click here

The U.K. is playing a key role in beefing up NATO defenses in the region, with British armed forces due to dispatch a battalion-sized battle group to Estonia next spring. The move is aimed at deterring any possible hostility from Russia toward its tiny neighbor, which has a large ethnic Russian minority. Putin, who’s vowed to defend Russian speakers across the world, has repeatedly denied he intends to attack the three Baltic countries, which broke free from Soviet rule as communism collapsed.

While some other eastern European nations fret over the large numbers of their citizens residing in Britain, Estonia’s “practical interest” in free movement of labor is overshadowed by the “strategic loss” of an ally, according to Ligi. Security cooperation with Britain “inevitably affects Estonian positions on other issues,” he said, though he doesn’t see “major threats” to Estonian citizens in Britain.

Only about 10,000 to 15,000 Estonians live in the U.K., suggesting “negligible” direct economic consequences from potential restrictions on the free movement of labor, the central bank said Oct. 5. Trade represents a similar situation, with limits likely to have “a perceptible but small impact” as Estonia’s goods and services exports to the U.K. are equal to about 3 percent of its economy, according to the bank.

Hard Brexit

A so-called hard Brexit, in which the U.K. imposes immigration curbs that limit its access to the EU’s single market “seems to be on the cards now,” according to Ligi. While the U.K.’s participation in the bloc’s budget isn’t a priority, Britain would have to start paying for common-market access as other non-EU participants in the economic area do, he said.

Even so, while Estonia supports the EU’s four freedoms -- of capital, goods, services and people -- it has no desire to unnecessarily complicate the U.K.’s departure when it assumes the bloc’s presidency, Ligi said.

“Estonia’s presidency will mainly aim at not making it more painful than it is and not let Britons become too distant,” he said.

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