Ambassador - Estonia

The ambassador

Özlem Canel 

Dutch ambassador in Tallinn
Özlem Canel has been ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Estonia since 2020.

See the curriculum vitae of ambassador Canel.

Meet the ambassador

Image: Ambassador Özlem Canel talking to high school students in Tallinn.
As the Dutch ambassador to Estonia, Özlem Canel has a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities the Baltic country is facing. In this interview, Özlem talks about the efforts Estonia is making to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy. And she highlights the important role that the Netherlands, with its expertise in wind energy and hydrogen, is playing in this regard. She also tells us about Estonia’s solidarity with Ukraine and how the country is doing everything it can to prevent Russian aggression from spreading to Estonia. 

What is it like to be the ambassador to Estonia?

‘The country is well organised and things here are straightforward. And the lack of red tape makes working here easy. As for the Estonian people, they are big on nature. There’s a lot of space here, with vast woodlands and a landscape that’s just as flat as the Netherlands. During my previous posting, in Finland, I had the opportunity to visit Estonia on several occasions, so I got to know the country quite a bit. Although there are some similarities in terms of language and culture, the one major difference is Estonia’s Soviet past, which has had a lasting impact here.

The trauma from that period can still be felt. There are still people who lived through the horrific deportations to Siberia, which left deep scars. Traces of the country’s Soviet past are visible everywhere and come up regularly in my discussions. And the current war in Ukraine is unfortunately bringing all of these terrible memories back to the surface.’

What topics do Estonia and the Netherlands work together on?

‘The embassy’s priority is to work with Estonia in areas of EU cooperation, and especially the green energy transition. This transition is extremely important for Estonia. Even before the war in Ukraine the country already had plans to become less dependent on Russian gas, but the invasion has accelerated this process. 

In addition, we also work closely in the areas of defence and security. Our focus in this regard is on cybersecurity, hybrid threats and economic security, including the protection of critical infrastructure. Our cooperation in this area takes place primarily within the context of NATO.’

What role does the Dutch embassy play in Estonia’s energy transition?

Image: Özlem addresses participants at the annual conference.

‘Oil shale is currently an important source of energy in the northeast of Estonia, close to the Russian border. Estonia strives to phase out this fossil fuel because of its extremely harmful impact on the climate. The Netherlands, which has developed extensive expertise in the areas of wind energy and hydrogen, is trying to share its knowledge in this area and promote it in Estonia. And so far we’ve been successful at that. Now, in addition to onshore wind energy, there’s also interest here in offshore wind energy. The Dutch company Van Oord is investing in the construction of a wind farm off the coast of Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa.

To further stimulate the energy transition, last year we initiated an annual conference on the island. This platform brings together governments, businesses, academics and civil society to share their knowledge and expertise. The number of participants has been growing each year, with over 130 this year. The embassy is involving regional partners more and more.

When the most recent Dutch mission on wind energy was here, for instance, we not only worked with Estonians but also with Finns who came to Tallinn for this purpose. Fortunately I can draw on the contacts I built during my time in Helsinki to strengthen these partnerships!’

How do the Baltic states view the war in Ukraine?

‘People in the Baltic States are outraged and horrified by the war in Ukraine. Although Russia is now primarily active in eastern Ukraine, people here are still fearful that, when this war ends and Russia has been able to regroup, it might set its sights on the Baltic states. That’s why they’re doing all they can to support Ukraine. They want to ensure that Ukraine wins the war and that Russia never thinks of doing anything like this again, especially not in this region.

Estonia works hard to build strong partnerships and friendships to ensure that the country is never isolated again. As the first president of Estonia following its independence, Lennart Meri, said: ‘Never again alone.’ The current prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has also spoken out globally against the war in Ukraine since the very beginning and is one of the most prominent figures in this context. And we’re seeing this solidarity in action. Estonia has received over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, some 43,000 of whom have been granted temporary residence permits. Although at first glance this might not seem like a lot, it represents 3% of the total population!’

A few months ago Estonia held parliamentary elections. What do the results mean for the country’s relationship with the Netherlands?

‘Prime Minister Kallas won convincingly, and her party took 37 of the 101 seats in parliament. She formed a government with her centre-right Reform Party, the progressive liberal party Estonia 200 and the Social Democratic Party. Together the parties have a comfortable majority of 60 seats. One positive development is the first-ever appointment of a minister of climate, which will benefit Estonia’s energy transition.

As far is the relationship between Estonia and the Netherlands is concerned, it was already very strong. The Estonian president’s working visit to the Netherlands in mid-April confirmed this. We share the same values and support each other. And we understand each other completely. It’s almost hard to imagine that it could get any better than this. We will pursue the path we are on and will continue to work closely with the new government.’

What about the rights of LGBTI people?

Image: The Dutch embassy coordinated diplomatic participation in the Baltic Pride Parade in Tallinn

'On June 20, Estonia legalized same-sex marriage, making it the first Baltic country to take this step. The law will be in effect from 2024. It was considered a historic moment by the Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas. This intention was already included in the coalition agreement of the new progressive-liberal government in the spring. A poll in early May showed that 53% of the population, especially young people, no longer see this issue as controversial.

This was confirmed by the Baltic Pride Parade, which took place in Tallinn on June 10. The parade attracted thousands of participants and was characterized by a peaceful atmosphere. There were participants from the Netherlands and the embassy coordinated diplomatic participation in the parade and financed the special t-shirts for the participants. Estonia once again confirms that it is the most Nordic country of the Baltic states.'

A few years from now, when you look back on your time here, what do you hope to be most proud of?

‘Optimistically, I hope that peace remains and that Estonia can continue to flourish in its own unique way. Looking a bit further into the future, I hope that in a few years, after I’ve left, I can come back to see the first offshore wind farms. And, while I’m here for that, I hope I will also be able to see the initial infrastructure of the Hydrogen Valley. These are ambitious projects that Estonia is working on with the help of Dutch support and expertise. If I can do all of that, then I will look back with pride at my time spent here.’