President issues statement expressing controversial emergency law fears

President Kersti Kaljulaid.
President Kersti Kaljulaid. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

President Kersti Kaljulaid signed into effect the controversial Emergency Act, which lays out the handling of the situation which comes into effect on Monday, and ends the emergency situation which the government imposed on March 12. The president however criticized the law as an example of bad legislation both in content and form, having been hurried through without full analysis of the as-yet ongoing emergency situation, and its implications, and to that extent anti-democratic as well as extra powers it grants to state agencies, to the detriment of both executive and legislature.

The president issued a formal statement in which she laid out her concerns and implored the Riigikogu not to surrender its safeguarding role and to thoroughly conduct a post-mortem on the emergency situation ending Sunday.

Controversy revolves around concerns over increased powers granted to state agencies, including the Health Board (Terviseamet), which critics say are excessive, and go beyond those of the government itself, with the latter thus being able to dodge tough decision-making in potential future crises. The Riigikogu similarly has been relegated, critics say.

The law, a so-called "cluster law" which amends several different laws at once, has also been criticized for just that – being inherently complicated and in this case both halting the present emergency situation and moving the goalposts on what an emergency or crisis actually is, going forwards.

Eight Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) MPs voted with the opposition Reform Party on one of the latter's two proposed amends to the bill earlier in the week. Since the other amend did not pass, Reform said that their amend was toothless and the bill was in effect a 'scrap law".

The State Chancellery rejected claims that the law contained technical defects, however, adding that it could go ahead despite being against the will of the legislator (in the case of the voted-down Reform amend). It passed its Riigikogu third reading on Wednesday.

Kersti Kaljulaid also expressed concerns about what she called declining political responsibility under the new law, and called on the Riigikogu, government and constitutional institutions to conduct a thorough and substantive review of the steps taken during the emergency situation, in order to be better prepared for future crises.

President's statement in full:

"This week, the Riigikogu passed a law amending, among other laws, the Emergency Act (HoS) and the Communicable Disease Prevention and Control (NETS) Act. The path chosen on several occasions during the emergency situation caused by the coronavirus is a good example of bad legislation. Both in form and content."

"Understandably, there is always little time in periods of crisis. Every major crisis highlights gaps in legislation. This is normal and inevitable, which is why lessons are usually learned from each crisis, and laws are adjusted based on their analysis. Therefore, I do not understand why the Riigikogu, in the current state of emergency, wants to deal with urgent matters on several occasions, where there is no direct time pressure, and which require subsequent wisdom in crisis management - analysis of what has happened and substantive discussion based on it."

"A cluster law is not necessarily bad if several laws are processed together for the same purpose. However, as with the previous cluster law (which passed on May 4 and over which the president also expressed concerns-ed.), the law re-introduces legislative changes, one of which is necessary for the next steps of the current crisis (changing the NETS), while the other, the emergency law, changes the general framework for all future crises."

"Although it is not unconstitutional, this does not constitute clear and reasonable law-making. Making such fundamental decisions with long-term effects without a substantive discussion - which was also reflected in the course of the proceedings in the Riigikogu - is not justified."

"The amendment to NETS is constitutional and necessary. The amendment adds coronavirus to the list of dangerous infectious diseases because, although less lethal than other diseases on the list, it is a previously unknown infection. The amendment to the HoS, the aim of which was stated to be legal clarity, but where something else failed, is also unconstitutional. The amendment to the law will increase the powers of the authorities during future emergencies, so that in addition to relegating itself, the Riigikogu also placed the government in the back seat in crisis management.

"Was this the desire and request of the Riigikogu? I do not know. But it is certainly several large steps away from a state organization in the way I want to see it in Estonia. In any emergency, it is important for democracy to have a level of participation in decision-making, which also has political responsibility for the well-being of our country. This is how the people can have their say."

"As has been stated, the Riigikogu has the right to delegate responsibility. Under the new law, the national government and even local governments will also be able to hide behind officials in emergencies, and will no longer have to make decisions that are often unpleasant for people. I trust Estonian officials and their professionalism, but the understandable role of elected politicians in making decisions in difficult times for the country is a value in itself for a democratic state."

"For a long time, I have watched with concern how the Riigikogu has not found the strength to deal with the issues of Estonia's sustainable future - and certainly this bill is one example of determining our future without further analysis. In this way, little by little, without taking any specific steps directly into the Constitution, the Riigikogu will give up its power."

"Honorable Riigikogu - do not do this. I am promulgating this law insofar as it is not unconstitutional and part of it is necessary for a smooth exit from the crisis. But in doing so, I address you, the people's representatives - and also the government, the Chancellor of Justice, and the Auditor General - with one wish."

"This is a request now and immediately, before the crisis goes into summer, to thoroughly analyze the steps taken during the emergency and to help society find out which precedents are worth using in similar difficulties in the future, and which should be sent to the trash can. 

"This work is indispensable for the preservation of Estonia as a democratic state, and only the Riigikogu can be the leader of this work, as well as ringing the changes based on the conclusions. I wish the Riigikogu strength and success in this endeavor."

The President signed the Bill on Amendments to the Medical Devices Act, the Emergency Act and other acts passed by the Riigikogu on Wednesday morning.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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