Estonia shows that it is perfectly possible to be a patriot and good European at the same time.
On Sunday (February 2008), Estonians celebrated the 90th anniversary of their state But in 1913, five years before the foundation of that state, the respectable and always reliable Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote this about them:
As a race, they exhibit manifest evidences of their Ural-Altaic or Mongolic descent in their short stature, absence of beard, oblique eyes, broad face, low forehead and small mouth. In addition to that they are an undersized, ill thriven people with long arms and thin, short legs.
Well, what has changed 95 years later? The short answer would be that at least the legs have grown longer.
History arrived late in Estonia. The Romans never reached so far, though Tacitus described Estonians as living on the verge of the civilised world (as well as making some nasty observations, in his Germania, about the Finns).
Christianity first triumphed here almost 1,000 years after St Augustine arrived in the British isles in order to become the first archbishop of Canterbury.
But let us not to be misled. Paradoxically, Estonia is both an old country and a young state. The history of the Estonians dates back more than 50 centuries, but it was only in the aftermath of the first world war, on February 24 1918, that the Estonian state was born.
Another paradox is that, of the 90 years of our statehood, Estonians have spent more than half absent from the political map of the world. The Baltic states, together with Poland, acted like canaries when the dictators in Berlin and Moscow decided to divide Europe among themselves and the dark clouds started to gather on the horizon.
Let us remember that war broke out after the western powers refused to become involved. In failing to do so, a crisis situation developed at a far higher cost than would have had to be paid had they intervened earlier.
Instead of this, a member of the British Foreign Office reported, in December 1941: “I do not feel that the independence of the Baltic states is a European necessity.”
The gentleman was utterly wrong. Fortunately, his views did not prevail.
The singer Sting has written a song with the title History Will Teach Us Nothing. It is an excellent piece of music, but I do disagree with him: we should blame not history but people’s inability to learn from it.
Our past, our experiences of totalitarianism, those of us that were murdered, imprisoned and deported, in short our historical experience, form the basis of the common values of today’s democratic world.
There are no people in Europe today who cannot complain of having lost something. The idea of loss is important, fundamental to life. To live with loss, to mourn something that was lost, this also means forgiving oneself.
To forgive does not mean to forget because to forget would mean to repeat the past once more, and that we shall never do. It is on this foundation that we build our common future, firm in the knowledge that the horrors of totalitarianism must be banished forever.
We must be able to see the future, the present and the past at the same time, to draw on our past experiences and see our mistakes. This is why Estonian servicemen are standing shoulder to shoulder today with the British in Helmand province, in Afghanistan. Yes, numerically our presence is limited to “only” 125 soldiers. But taken per capita, the Estonian commitment is significant: Estonia has nine soldiers for every 100,000 inhabitants; Britain has almost 13 and the US five.
And this is a commitment that counts, because the European history of the 1930s has taught us that evil must be fought where it emerges, before it grows too strong.
There’s a lot to be said for being small. Small countries are viable; small countries generally don’t start wars; and they don’t have the aspirations of big powers to lead other nations or to rule the seas.
There are also disadvantages. In the long term, the European Union will only move forward if there is a strategic coalition of the willing that includes the key big. Nothing will happen unless the big countries agree to it.
In this sense, the leadership of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance for the future of Europe. Seen from Estonia’s perspective, we must do everything in our power to have a strong Europe. In the words of the late president Lennart Meri: “Europe is not a carnival or a beer festival”.
The message to our friends in the UK is: don’t be afraid of Europe, as it is possible to be British patriots and good Europeans at the same time.
The world around us has become extremely complicated, and the need to have precise answers ready for tomorrow is growing rapidly. So far, it seems we have many more questions than answers. It is important to bear in mind that it is not only the bigger countries that are able to offer solutions. This is a moment of opportunity for any small European country prepared to think big. I would like to believe that my own country, Estonia, is ready for that.
In 1993, more than 10 years before we became members of the EU, Dr Otto von Habsburg said in his remarks at the Charles Stransky memorial lecture in London: “Don’t forget the Estonians. They are the best Europeans”. It is my sincere hope that he was right.
Oh, and does the sun ever shine in Estonia? The best way is to come and find out for yourself.
Originally published in http://www.theguardian.com/uk/commentisfree.