Date: 22 November 2019
An alternative to NATO? A firestorm in Estonia after the Deputy PM’s words
The government in Estonia together with other Baltic states is preparing a “plan B” in case NATO fails to ensure security – one of the Estonian journals quoted the words of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Mart Helme. Other members of the Estonian government distanced themselves from these words and the Minister of Defence called it absurd.
The next day after a wave of criticism, Helme retreated from his words about the “plan B”. However, the matter undermines the credibility of NATO especially after the recent declaration of the President of France who doubted the allied guarantees of the organisation. Moreover, the statement of the Deputy Prime Minister of the state, which is one of the NATO members whose security depends mainly on their allies, was similar. Considering the ideological and political profile of the EKRE party which is led by Helme, it is possible that this was a deliberate provocation.
On November 19, Mart Helme, the leader of the Euro-sceptic, nationalist and anti-immigrant Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) gave an interview to the Finnish journalists and its most important parts were published in Finnish journals. The “Turun Sanomat” journal reports, that Estonia – according to Helme – cannot be sure that NATO would guarantee its territorial integrity and independence in any circumstances. It was said in relation to the recent words of Emmanuel Macron about the “brain death” of NATO. In turn, the “Iltalehti” journal wrote – invoking Helme as well – that the stance of the Estonian government for the approaching meeting of NATO leaders as well as the preparation of the “plan B” were discussed on November 18 during the meeting of the Estonian cabinet. The “plan B” is supposed to concern not only Estonia but also other Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, but also Finland. How did Helme explain the necessity to create a defence plan in case of a lack of help from NATO? He expressed his concern about the attitude of the key members of the alliance. According to him, China, not Russia, is the main threat for the USA, Great Britain after Brexit may limit its military engagement in Europe, and finally, “nobody knows how Markel’s leaving would change German foreign policy”. Helme said that in the case of security policy he would not count on the EU guarantees. The problem is that he did not precisely said what the “plan B” would include and how Estonia and neighbouring countries would enhance their security without NATO.
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Other Estonian politicians criticised the words of the Deputy PM and the leader of EKRE. PM Jüri Ratas (Keskerakond) said that there was no need to question the Estonian membership in NATO. He wrote on Facebook that the Estonian A, B or C plans aim to enhance the independent defence capabilities, but all within NATO. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) wrote that he saw no alternative to NATO. He also said that “special relations” between Estonia and the USA had to be maintained. The opposition reacts more fiercely. The leader of the Social Democrats, Indrek Saar, sent a letter to the PM asking whether he would try to dismiss Helme. Saar recalled that during the governance of the previous cabinet, a minister from the Centre Party Mikhail Korn who questioned Estonia’s membership in NATO was dismissed. Jüri Luik (Isamaa), Minister of Defence reacted in the strongest way. He announced that the government had never discussed the “plan B” as an alternative to NATO. – Such stories are absurd. They only undermine the integrity of NATO and weaken the deterrent potential – Luik said and recalled that the Estonian airspace was being protected by the allies and the British and French are stationing in the base in Tapa. He pointed out that in Estonia, Minister of the Interior (currently Helme) was not engaged in the military defence planning: “Those who are engaged know that our aim is to reinforce NATO and not to raise doubts of our enemies and friends. There is no alternative to NATO, and there will not be”. – Everything we do with our allies is based on our membership in NATO. Should we really believe that the American B-52 strategic aircraft would be flying over Estonia if we had not been a part of the collective NATO defence? – Luik asked rhetorically. The Ministry of Defence of Finland reacted to the words of the Estonian Deputy PM. The Secretary-General Janne Kuusela announced that Estonia might have its own plans but nobody contacted the government in Helsinki and Finland did not have and was not working on any “plan” together with other Baltic states.
The day after the reports of the Finnish press and harsh reaction of the politicians, Helme made a statement assuring that the Finnish newspaper misinterpreted his words: “I did not say that our government is working together with our neighbours to find an alternative to NATO. NATO is and will be our primary guarantee of safety”. However, Helme added that every state should still work on enhancing its own independent defence capabilities. It does not change the fact that the whole matter has already had a negative impact on Estonia and its position in NATO, and on the whole alliance as well, just as the previous words of Macron and the PM of Luxembourg.
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