Interview by Linas Jegelevičius
Estonian liberal MEP Kaja Kallas agrees that belonging to a well-known family has been a bonus, but notes she moved up the ladder as a lawyer by herself. As the deputy chair of the ruling Estonia’s Reform Party, she says “people are generally happy” about the way the party handles things, but admits that she had expected Taavi Rõivas, the party leader and Estonian PM, to include more women in the Cabinet. Kallas kindly agreed to answer some questions for ERR News.
Are there any bills in the European Parliament to be passed before the new year that will have a tangible impact on the European Union and the Baltics?
Indeed, there are so many drafts and all kinds of legislative acts in the pipeline or about to be enacted, that it is very hard to single out any of them.
I’d perhaps point out two of them. First, the new data protection regulations, which should be passed before Christmas. It will affect all citizens of the European Union. The other topic, in a wider context, is energy union of the European Union, which is definitely very important for the citizens of the three Baltic States.
Speaking of data protection regulation, there are intense debates going on now in the European Parliament concerning how the EU approaches personal data, especially now with the danger from terrorists. A sizable group of europarliamentarians insists that personal data needs a very high level of protection as it is a fundamental human right. At the same time, other MEPs claim that security cannot be compromised, especially if people themselves do not want to have their personal data protected.
Do you personally believe a person has the right of being “forgotten”?
This has been one of the biggest debates: does a person have the right to be forgotten. Various opinions are voiced, but the bottom line in approaching the issue should be whether we are talking about public people – politicians, for example – or private citizens. There are a lot of differences of opinion on the issue, even between close partners such as the United States and the European Union, both of whom have a different understanding of what, for example, a public scandal is. The United States believes that nothing should be forgotten; meanwhile Europe thinks that one should be given a “second chance,” even if a person has made significant mistakes in his or her life. I stand for the European approach; however, there is room for all kinds of manipulation of the issue, I admit.
Is there any legislative initiative that you have put your hands on substantially throughout your term in the European Parliament? Is there any bill there that you are especially proud of?
Well, as I’ve been in the European Parliament for just over a year, it’s too early perhaps to expect to have done much regarding EU legislation. However, as a rapporteur, I have worked hard on the digital single market strategy. The topic is very wide and raises many discussions. We have received many amendments to the strategy which we have to go over.
As the deputy chair of Estonia’s Reform Party you can make a splash in Estonian politics, but, no offense, you are a minnow in the 751-member European Parliament. How can such a small country like Estonia be made to be heard louder in Brussels?
Indeed, I’ve heard this question many times – why I chose the European Parliament and, as some say, vanishing in it, instead of staying and retaining visibility in the Estonian Parliament. I respond to it this way: in the European Parliament one can have a greater impact on the processes than in national legislative chambers. If you are a really active member of the European Parliament, a lot can be done there, way more than in national politics. On the national level, you usually have a ruling coalition and the opposition. Here, there is no such thing, so to get your ideas heard you need to talk to colleagues from different parliamentary groups, which is often a lot easier than getting the attention of the ruling coalition in national politics. I believe it all depends on the individual member of the European Parliament, regardless of where – Malta, Germany or Estonia – he or she is coming from.
Can you recall a legislative initiative in the European Parliament when the members of three Baltic States have worked together?
Well, when it comes to some acute topics, like ones in connection with Russia, Ukraine or energy issues, we all share a common perspective, but this is not always the case. On the European level, we work together on all issues, which cannot be said about national politics, where there is much competition – for investment, influence and so on.
One of the other fields that you focus on in the European Parliament is EU anti-trust regulation. What do you believe needs to be done to improve it?
As I said, my key interests are with the digital single market and the preparation of the strategy. There’s nothing wrong with the EU competition policy, but the implementation of the policy is of concern to some and me, too. What I mean by this is that all digital companies, or ones operating in the digital sphere, act very differently from traditional companies. In order to understand what their market share is, how they operate, whether they are abusing their dominant position or not, quite different tools are needed to get that kind of information. This is where the problem lies.
What is the biggest sacrifice that you have made by being active in politics?
My privacy, definitely. Being a politician means you are constantly in the public eye. Privacy and politics do not go hand in hand.
Is there anything you feel disappointed with in Brussels?
Actually, I have to say I really like my work in Brussels. In fact, I am enjoying it more than I thought. Of course some small things, like the fact that not everything in Brussels works digitally as it does in Estonia, might be frustrating sometimes. But in general, I find the work very interesting and my colleagues are very nice. There’s much to be learnt here in the European Parliament.
Excuse my bluntness, but do you believe you would have made it to where you are now if not for your father, a prominent Estonian politician?
Considering that in law I’ve moved up pretty high on my own, without any references from my father, I think it demonstrates I am a hard-working person who can manage life quite well.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that, in the beginning, it has served as a boost. I mean that belonging to the family always generated greater attention from the media, which definitely has helped me on the way. In politics, marketing rules often apply: no one will become interested in even a good product unless the media spotlights it. In politics, being a competent person is by itself obviously not enough.
As the deputy chairman of the Reform Party, are you happy with the way the party leader and government head, Taavi Rõivas, runs it and the government?
As I am not involved in Estonian politics every day now, I can talk about it from a more distant perspective. Frankly, there are many things I’d perhaps have done differently.
What are they?
I’d have included more women in the Government. But people in Estonia seem to be generally quite happy with the way Taavi Rõivas handles things.
If the party ever entrusted you with the reigns of the party, would you be up for it?
Well, it would depend on many things: if there was an election and when it would take place. So I think it is all about the right timing.
Unlike Latvia or Lithuania, Estonia has never had a women president. Has the time come now? Would you be up for the challenge?
Obviously it’s too early to be speaking about that as there is much to do before considering such an intention. But I have no doubt Estonia has many women who could be on a par with men in the race.
How important for you is it to be seen as a role model for all women? Do you feel you are empowering women back in Estonia?
I would like to share this story before answering. Two years ago, I was giving a speech at an event that addressed these issues. While preparing for the event one of my foreign colleagues told me the reason why there are relatively few women in politics in Estonia, is that there are few women role models. When a woman stood up during the event and publicly called me a role model for all women, it was a huge acknowledgment for me. That in the recent national parliamentary election we had more women running for the seats is a good sign, too. Importantly, more women got elected.
Your father, Siim Kallas, is among the most likely candidates to be squaring off in the presidential election in Estonia next year. Do you believe your father would suit the office best?
(Laughs) I do believe he’d be the right candidate for the election and he would make a very good president. It would be strange if I thought differently.