European Union
Kaja Kallas and the New Era of EU Diplomacy

Kaja Kallas is appointed as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Kaja Kallas is appointed as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

© picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency | Zhao Dingzhe

Just three weeks after the European elections, the European Council agreed on the top jobs  of the European Union  - Ursula von der Leyen is to continue leading the European Commission, António Costa for the European Council, and Kaja Kallas is appointed as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. From a lawyer specializing in European competition law to becoming the first woman Prime Minister of Estonia and now about to serve as the EU’s foreign policy chief – what do we know about liberal Kaja Kallas, often reffered to as Europe’s Iron Lady?

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, left, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, right,

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, left, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, right.

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Olivier Hoslet

Kaja Kallas was born on June 18, 1977, in Tallinn. Her father, Siim Kallas, held significant political roles, serving as the Prime Minister of Estonia from 2002 to 2003 and as a European Commissioner from 2004 to 2014. Her mother, Kristi Kallas (née Kartus), is a physician. Kaja has an older brother, Ülo Kallas, who works as a financial executive. Her paternal great-grandfather, Eduard Alver, played a significant role in Estonia's history as a commander of the Estonian Defence League during the Estonian War of Independence. He also led the Estonian Police and the Estonian Internal Security Service. Kaja's family history includes a harrowing chapter during the Soviet June deportation of 1941. As Kallas impressively demonstrated during her Freedom Speech at the invitation of the Naumann foundation in April 2022, her mother, then just six months old, was deported to Siberia along with her mother and grandmother. They were permitted to return to Estonia a decade later. "Russia hasn't changed," she said last year on marking an anniversary of her mother's exile. "This evil lives on in Russia." In addition to her Estonian roots, Kaja Kallas has distant Latvian and Baltic German ancestry, a discovery made by investigative journalists researching her family history after her father's tenure as Prime Minister.

"Europe’s Iron Lady"

Originally working as a lawyer, Kaja Kallas entered politics in 2010 by joining the Estonian Reform Party (member of Renew Europe). She won a seat in the Riigikogu in the 2011 parliamentary elections and later served as a Member of the European Parliament from 2014 to 2018. In the European Parliament, Kaja Kallas focused on the Digital Single Market strategy, energy, consumer policies, and relations with Ukraine. She advocated for innovation and the rights of small and medium-sized enterprises, quickly establishing herself as a leading European voice on digital technology, regulation, and EU-Ukraine relations.

In 2018, Kallas became the first female leader of the Reform Party and led the party to a victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections, though initially left out of the ruling coalition. In January 2021, she became Estonia's first female Prime Minister, leading the country through the global energy crisis and becoming a prominent and most determined pro-Ukrainian voice during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Under her leadership, Estonia has provided significant military aid to Ukraine and has taken a firm stance against Russian aggression. When Putin began amassing troops near Ukraine's borders in 2021, while larger European states hesitated, Kaja Kallas' government already took swift action. They started sending weapons to Kyiv by December 2021, with Kallas emphasizing the proactive stance: "Our neighbors' problems today are our problems tomorrow." When Russia invaded on February 24, Kallas and her government's  security concerns were proven right. They increased their military support by 0.8% of its GDP (estimated contribution for 2023 was 2,73%), standing out significantly compared to other nations' contributions. Kallas also made impassioned speeches internationally, asserting the importance of defending the liberal, rules-based international order. Her leadership during this period earned her international praise and the nickname "Europe's Iron Lady."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

© picture alliance / abaca | ABACA

Defender of a free Europe

She has also been instrumental in supporting Ukraine's EU membership and has taken a strong stance against ceding any Ukrainian territory to Russia. Kallas' tenure has been marked by her strong support for Ukraine's EU membership and efforts to bolster NATO's defense and deterrence posture. On 13 February 2024, Russian officials placed Kallas on the Russian interior ministry's register of people wanted on criminal charges, reportedly related to the removal of Soviet World War II monuments in Estonia. She is the first head of government known to be added to this register by Russian authorities, a move she dismissed as a "scare tactic" by Russia. Following her nomination for EU's foreign policy chief, Russia responded by labeling Kaja Kallas as "strongly Russophobic."

In 2023, Kaja Kallas faced a domestic scandal regarding the continued business operations in Russia by a company partially owned by her husband, Arvo Hallik. This occurred despite her consistent public appeals for Estonian companies to cease operations in Russia.

Kaja Kallas would be the fifth EU representative for foreign affairs since the position was established in 1999. She would also be the first representative from post-communist Europe and the first Baltic states representative to reach the top levels of executive policymaking within the union. If confirmed, Kaja Kallas will need to demonstrate her ability to speak convincingly about diverse regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. A growing number of EU diplomats in Brussels view her background from a non-colonial country as a potential asset. After her nomination she said that the EU’s foreign policy has been strengthened since the start of the Ukraine war. “I want to make us stronger in the future. Unity is the basis of everything. The European institutions and member states must work together to strengthen cohesion,” she said. “There is a war going on in Europe. This is the most important challenge of EU foreign policy. Growing instability also demands our attention.” With her political profile defined by qualities, Kaja Kallas will arrive in Brussels embodying the shared historical memory of the Baltic and Eastern European regions regarding the threat posed by Russia. Simultaneously, she represents their collective determination to confront this threat with full vigor.

As the EU's prospective chief diplomat, Kaja Kallas will undergo public hearings starting in late September. Members of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs committee (AFET) and Security and Defence sub-committee (SEDE) will scrutinize her policy vision. Ultimately, Kallas and the entire College of Commissioners must receive approval through a single vote. Following extensive negotiations between EU parliamentary political groups and Commissioners, an EU-specific work program for the next five years has been agreed upon.