Last Friday Cicero was speaking at the two-yearly seminar on the Baltic countries held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. Two years ago we were celebrating the entry of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the European Union and NATO. This year the atmosphere is more muted. The reforming zeal of the region continues, but a greater sense of tiredness is evident- the politicians are clearly finding that keeping focused on the complexity of change is now more difficult with the goal of EU entry now achieved.
Yet as a Liberal I am heartened.
The key note speaker, Mart Laar, was the Prime Minister during the implementation of the shock therapy programme and continues to lead the most right wing faction, Isamaaliit, in the Estonian Parliament. Meanwhile another speaker, Professor Marju Lauristin retains her membership of the Social Democrats (although she herself was a minister in Mart Laar's government). What strikes me, however, is that there is a large body of policy which the to politicians at either end of the Estonian political spectrum actually agree on. Not for the first time, I find myself thinking that the debates that take place across the political spectrum in Estonia take place within the Liberal Democrats in Britain.
Although British Conservatives lionize Mr. Laar, he describes himself as a Liberal and in his blunt support for the European Union he has far more in common with British Liberal Democrats than with British Conservatives. Although the gentlemanly and thoughtful Christopher Beazley MEP, who chairs one of the sessions, provides his usual thoughtful analysis, it is clear that as a pro-European Conservative, he is a very small minority indeed. Christopher represents one of the most attractive strains of Conservative thinking, but in their determination to head down the cul-de-sac of Anti Europeanism, the Conservative party no longer listens to such humane and principled voices.
Meanwhile, in her open minded views on welfare reform, Professor Lauristin too reflects Liberal ideas- a far cry from the dog-in-the-manger union activity that still creates many difficulties in the British public sector. I see that British politics is still so much more polarized compared to Estonia. I idly wonder whether this is just another example of the "grass is greener", but think that the practical realities of reform have forced Estonian politics into a more informed and honest mind set than the ill informed brawl of the British House of Commons.
The Liberal tide in Europe is rising and the success of such countries as Estonia is something that British Liberal Democrats can learn from.