In an interview with ERR, Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) said that Europe taking out a joint loan would mean losing financial independence. He also believes that Germany wants to use it to save its banks that have given loans to Southern European states, and warned that in case of a crash, Italy might return to its own national currency in order to save its economy.
ERR: Mart Helme, was EKRE MEP Jaak Madison's [Tuesday] proposal to put it to a referendum in Estonia if the government decides to go along with the French-German proposals to take a joint European loan a solo or have you also seriously discussed this in the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE)?
Mart Helme: No. I have to admit that this has not been discussed, and all of this information is of course new and I suppose Jaak Madison did his own quick analysis of what he thinks. This Macron-Merkel proposal is also actually a solo in some respects, as we have never seen a situation like this, where the European Union takes out a loan. What sort of mechanisms exist, what sort of obligations states will have, what sort of rights states will have, what the key will be in distributing this money — these are all things that are currently completely unclear.
I think even the [European] Commission side doesn't even know exactly what the final product will be that will be brought to the table for states, much less member states themselves, and the Estonian government hasn't discussed this topic either.
I can say about the prime minister as well that the prime minister's statement that this is a step in the right direction was a solo, because the government hasn't discussed this.
ERR: Is this question a fundamental one for EKRE, that this is the thing that you do not intend to yield on?
MH: This is actually a fundamental question for all of the people of Estonia; it is actually a fundamental question for the entire EU. This will mean that the next step will be the implementation of uniform taxes in Europe. This essentially means the liquidation of member states' financial independence in a relatively short period of time. And so this isn't a critical matter just for this government; it is a critical matter for the entire EU and all member states.
I wouldn't get ahead of events, but it is clear that our attitude toward the federalization of Europe has always been very negative, and in that light, this proposal undoubtedly doesn't suit us.
ERR: Is there any sort of room for bargaining here, such as if our agricultural support is increased to the same levels as support provided to old, rich Western member states, then we could fundamentally agree with this thing?
MH: This is once again a consolation prize being suggested by Eurofederalists. The reality is that if this decision is accepted right now, then future agricultural support, but also all kinds of other support, will be decided not by a collective organ of member states' representations in the form of all councils, but by the European Commission.
Right now they may grant us full support in the form of agricultural support, but they may decide tomorrow that there was a drought there somewhere and there was a flood there somewhere and there was an earthquake there somewhere and now a key for redistribution must be made and victims must be given more and it should be taken away from others. This is the end of financial sovereignty, which is currently dawning in the form of Merkel and Macron's proposal.
This is not simply some kind of solitary bureaucratic matter, but rather a very fundamental matter of state sovereign and states' sovereign right to management, and from that perspective, Jaak Madison is absolutely right. This cannot be decided by any prime minister alone, and it is doubtful whether even parliament is competent enough to make such a fundamental decision with such a long-term impact.
We are talking about billions of euros here, and potential debt burdens on member states — on taxpayers. We are talking about the fact that what we receive will likely be significantly thinned out if we receive tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of euros less in European support per year and then receive some ten million or even a few dozen million extra for agriculture. These are not equal things on the scales.
These are very fundamental matters. I don't want to sound too resolute in this regard; the conditions are not yet on the table at all. Let's wait for these conditions; let's wait for the offer. We are very typically seeing of the EU's functioning mechanism that you ask for a lot and then receive very little. First something is brought to the table that gets the hackles of half of member states up, and then they start to slowly fine-tune it, until some kind of solution is reached that is acceptable to everyone.
It may go like that in this case as well. In that case, Estonia will not be alone in its doubts and reservations; at least half of member states will say that the proposal in its current form is not acceptable, and then they will start offering up their own proposals for compromise. The entire thing is too crude yet to start giving it a final assessment right now.
ERR: Four more northern EU member states have made a proposal of their own that as southern states are in trouble and threatened by collapse, then they should be given a loan, but these loans would be repaid by Southern Europeans, not the EU as a whole. Would this option be suitable for you?
MH: This is a speculative option, and in the case of Greece we saw that they actually repaid everything, and the money flowed into German banks. I'm seeing here as well that Germany and France's big banks are those that will most likely be granting and guaranteeing this loan, and that means that across Europe, money will be going to two of the EU's richest countries.
In the last crisis, the Germans took the juiciest cut, and I'm seeing the same sort of pattern now. I don't consider this pattern to be fair or show solidarity — to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer by capitalizing on someone's troubles. We can talk about solidarity, but to anyone who knows the mechanics of how this works, that will just make them laugh.
ERR: You are not afraid that southern countries may actually collapse and economic damage may occur later as businesses collapse — that they'll get by somehow?
MH: I'm absolutely not concerned, because the Italians have very clearly stated that if such momentum does arise, then they will return to their national currency and use that to save their economy. I am very clearly seeing here not just Germany's wish to save its own banks, which are in large part the lenders to Southern European countries that have encountered difficulties, but also its wish to save the euro and the eurozone as a whole.
There are significantly more layers to this than we are propagandistically being offered. This is just sausage-making to the average citizen, who works morning to night or doesn't work at all because they've lost their job; citizens don't understand the mechanics of this sausage-making. Let me put it this way: this isn't a fair game.
ERR: We have heard rumors that the government is discussing whether or not to allow Schengen Area citizens into Estonia. One option would be to allow Schengen citizens into Estonia beginning in June if they quarantine, or allow them out on the town if they have paperwork proving that they've tested negative for the coronavirus. Another option is for them to be tested at the airport. Is this true?
MH: We do indeed have such starting points for discussion. What sort of results we'll reach in this discussion... Alongside that is a table with the number of infections per 100,000 residents, etc., for all Schengen and third countries. Alongside that are also other tables, and we have already held consultations and are continuing to hold consultations with researchers; among them, Professor [Krista] Fischer has offered very thought-provoking tables.
These are very serious risks we're dealing with. On one hand, we'd like to see the enlivening of our economy, and as soon as possible. The tourism sector and accommodations and catering cannot do that well based on domestic tourism alone.
On the other hand, if we suggest, alright, let's do two nice summer months in which we allow tourists, but the coronavirus returns in September-October and the economy gets hit even harder. These are the starting points of this discussion, and accordingly, decisions will not be made lightly.
ERR: The situation is the most difficult in the U.K. and Sweden. Is Tallink justified in selling [ferry] tickets beginning June 15 on its homepage?
MH: I suppose airBaltic also sold tickets and announced destinations. Companies are trying to put a certain pressure on the government. I wouldn't say that this is the most proper action to take; no decisions have been made yet. I can see very clearly in the government how, when it comes to certain matters, certain ministers are very clearly lobbyists in terms of companies or directions in their field. There are other ministers there whose fields are not affected by these things, and they are a sobering voice. I certainly don't want to say about a single decision today that this decision will be made or this decision won't be made tomorrow.
ERR: Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center) said in an interview with ERR that she understands that foreign university students "marked" by the Internal Security Service, who come from problematic countries where there are concerns with Islamic terrorism, are not actually welcome here. Is the minister of the interior sure that third-country university students won't be in our classrooms on September 1?
MH: That depends on the countries. Russia is also a coronavirus catastrophe country, and we can say the same about Ukraine. The ruckus over strawberry growers, which in large part is generated by a lobby firm paid by them, absolutely does not take into account the capability of these countries' healthcare systems, and the desire of these healthcare systems and governments to address this matter in order to get it under control.
If we start allowing tourists and travelers into Estonia from Schengen countries and bring the disease in again and quarantine Saaremaa or Tallinn again, then the same might occur with university students from third countries. On top of everything else, Russia is not only an orthodox, but also a Muslim country. We often forget that, but the fastest growing population group in Russia is representatives of Muslim peoples.
Approximately 20 percent of the population in Russia is Muslims. To think that none of them will come here is totally wrong, of course they will. I have seen these numbers, and on top of everything else, the public doesn't know this — I won't start stating exact numbers or exact countries — but there are Muslim countries that very generously finance Muslim communities here.
Once again, this picture isn't as simple as they propagandistically attempt to paint, that Helme is closing the door to foreign students. I am not closing the door to anything or anyone; I am working based on the state's long-term interests. The emergence of a strong, well-organized and well-financed Muslim community is not in the state's long-term interests, because we see that certain safety risks come with it.
The people of Estonia certainly don't want Islamic terrorism to reach Estonia as well, or for them to have footholds, centers through which this is coordinated and financed. Certainly not one person of Estonia wants this. But this issue is there in connection with learning mobility. I'll say that much, without specifying all the details.
Regarding all of that learning mobility in general, then I'm sorry, but a majority of people working under the table are university students who are doing a little work here, there and somewhere else. And once again, Estonians are sort of liberal people, and might say, "But what's that got to do with me? Let them live, let them do it." But then don't ask for increases in social support and for the state to fulfill its commitments if we have taxes going uncollected.
€32 million in taxes went uncollected due to under the table labor, but the actual figure is likely significantly higher, because this is the amount that the Tax and Customs Board (MTA) was capable of identifying based on its assessments. The actual amount is definitely significantly higher; I can't tell you how much higher, but definitely higher.
And so propagandistically, every question can simply be presented well and fingers can be pointed at someone, saying they are guilty, they aren't letting people live. But if we look into the matter, then we can see that it's actually the opposite. By implementing these restrictions, we are letting Estonia live.
ERR: If the coronavirus situation allows, then university students from Finland and other EU countries can begin studying here on September 1, but the border to the east will remain closed?
MH: Well let's say third countries; that isn't just in the east. We have a significant contingent from Asian countries and the Dark Continent. But regarding Finland, Finland is fairly critical of our rapid post-corona liberalization, and Finland is much more conservative in letting people out, worried that they will bring the disease back with them from somewhere. So we are unable to say what the situation will be with Finnish students this fall.
ERR: Are you fundamentally unwilling to consider granting strawberry growers an exception for this summer? Strawberry growers had their plans made, then the coronavirus came and now they are in trouble. Perhaps let foreigners pick [strawberries] this summer, and then seriously examine whether we must be a country that grows its economy on the back of cheap labor?
MH: If we make an exception one time, then they'll come next time too. There are people lined up at the door who want an exception, all of whom are complaining that their business model is now being blown sky-high. If there is such a labor problem in the economy in Estonia that we can't pick strawberries without Ukrainians, we can't milk cows without Ukrainians, we can't weld without Ukrainians, we can't build without Ukrainians, we can't serve hospitals without Ukrainian nurses, then something has gone very, very wrong somewhere. Then there is something very, very wrong in our entire labor policy and our entire social security policy and our entire tax policy, and we need to start addressing that.
Regarding those strawberry-pickers, we have a problem this summer with the coronavirus. This summer, Ukraine is among those countries where coronavirus infection rates are unacceptably high, even according to official statistics.
ERR: One area where we could certainly find additional labor is those same students who are on break over the summer. As a parent, I've seen that the rules which currently allow children to work are very strict. They cannot do work that requires hard physical and mental effort, there are restrictions on hours and so on. Can't something quickly be done in this field, perhaps give parents the right to decide?
MH: Yes, I essentially agree, and thoughts are moving in that direction. This theme of so-called bites of work was also a topic brought up in the cabinet last week. It was involving the unemployed and guarantees on unemployed people in connection with if they go do some kind of work, how long can they work without losing their unemployed status. The topic has come up in connection with students, but we have not reached any specific solutions.
The minister of rural affairs and I would like to give this matter more gas so we can move forward with it. Will we manage this summer? I don't know, perhaps we will. I can't say; I don't dare provide any sort of legal assessment of what needs to be done in terms of legal plans so that later we don't have neverending court cases involving someone stubbing a toe or some other kinds of problems. These things need to be resolved. I'm afraid they will take more than a month to do.
Editor: Aili Vahtla