Finance minister Martin Helme says claims of labor shortages as the harvest season approaches in the strawberry fields is a PR stunt by those who don't want to pay a proper wage to Estonian workers.
Regarding migrant labor, Helme said that there are 50,000 migrant workers in Estonia, most of them from slavonic nations such as Ukraine but, during the crisis, the state needs to offer jobs to the locals.
"The question is one of principle," Helme said, speaking on Wednesday night's edition of ETV politics show "Esimene stuudio".
"I would say about the whole subject that we can see very clearly that it is a PR project, paid for by a PR house, which brings not only strawberry growers to the attenton of journalists, but also reveals that some of these strawberry growers are labor brokers, not strawberry growers at all," Helme said.
"I have a meeting shortly with the leaders of the Customs and Tax Board, I'm planning to ask them to look into these strawberry growing firms who are saying that they are paying thousands of euros every month to hundreds of workers. If I look at their annual reports, I can see that labor contributions have been paid in the hundreds of euros for the whole year. What are they doing, or who are they lying to?"
Bond issue will turbo-charge economy
Helme also said the government's €1-million bond issue is a chance to turbo-charge Estonia's economy during the crisis, in order to climb the ladder of European prosperity.
"The value of the money actually shows the assessment of the situation in Estonian finance," Helme said.
The finance minister said he was optimistic that the value is lower than in Latvia and Lithuania, because Estonia has good tax discipline and a low debt burden.
Helme noted that a loan planned for crisis measurements hasn't been used in advance. "We currently have a proper liquidity buffer. This is about €1.3 - 1.4 billion at the moment, so we don't have a liquidity problem." Reserves from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) and the Health Insurance Fund (Haigekassa) are included, he said, and these had been leaned on more during the crisis.
"A lot depends on what happens in the future. Our forecast for next year is that the nominal position is 3.5 percent in the red, meaning that the expenses exceed incomes by about €1 billion," Helme said.
"If we fall 7 or 8 percent with the economic crisis, optimistically, it could stay lower; it depends on the external conditions. Next year, we will recover, and it would be great to get back to zero or even on the plus side," he added.
Helme said the long-term bond emission is new for the state, and essentially, the state is advertising itself on the market.
"This is why the state is borrowing more than €1 billion at once. It's a question of risk diversification," Helme explained.
Coalition agreement does not allow for the approval of EU joint loan
According to Helme, the European Commission's proposal to create a fund of €750 billion to relaunch the economy paralyzed by the coronavirus crisis will impose several restrictions on member states. "The commission's proposal is quite general, for which Brussels must be fluent in the euro language," he said.
Helme added he thinks the EU wants to get the right to take on debt through the proposal, to create the right to issue direct taxation, and to start directing budget volumes.
Helme said the government has differing internal attitudes towards the EU and European integration. His party, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) does not support federalization in the EU or the introduction of new taxation. "If we abide by our coalition agreement (signed with Center and Isamaa-ed.), we cannot support these things," Helme said.
Helme also hit out at the idea of commonly funded support only heading for southern Europe, the region hit hardest by the pandemic.
"It is quite unequivocally echoed from the 'forest' that money is being spent on the Latin bloc," he said. "To the best of our ability, we should help those countries that have suffered the most from the coronavirus crisis; the question is how to do so. The European response is to create a 'united states of Europe'," the minister said.
Helme noted the EU has reached an unambiguous breaking point. Whereas, previously, the approval of member states had been bought with money, which has now run out, now, they want to buy the same approval using the money that the countries are giving them, i.e. by borrowing.
"If people want, we can be in a united Europe but in that case, like the MEP Jaak Madison (EKRE) said, a new referendum should be held," Helme said.
Editor: Roberta Vaino