Prime Minister Jüri Ratas takes the coronavirus half-time opportunity to talk about what he would do differently next time. He also promises a solution for foreign labor in agriculture, says that Estonia has not been closed to foreign students and finds that just as Estonia agreed to the EU Green Deal, so will it support the union's €750 billion recovery plan.
You have urged everyone to be prepared for the second wave of the coronavirus. Is that still relevant?
However, the principle here is that if there is going to be a second wave, our COVID autumn needs to be different from our COVID spring. We need to stand ready and avoid nationwide closures like we had recently. That said, public health needs to remain our number one priority.
Does this mean we will not be guided by doomsday models that heralded thousands of people in intensive care and the collapse of the Estonian medical system?
We will do it better, smarter next time. We will do everything we can do localize outbreaks. And we need to have a ready supply of personal protective gear.
The general principle needs to be that we will not close Estonia, while we will isolate the virus.
Did we overreact in spring?
Our reaction was rather similar to that of the rest of the world. I believe we responded adequately. The scientific advisory council has also said that restrictions were warranted and proportional and contributed to containing the spread of the virus.
And they were based on what we knew then? Or what we didn't know?
It would be correct to say that they were based on our best knowledge that was improving every minute and every hour.
Do you already know what to do differently next time?
If it [new crisis] will be similar to what we had in April, the answer is yes.
Kindergartens should definitely remain open?
It was the right call to keep kindergartens open. It was a great help to parents who had to work on the front lines of the crisis.
The government will no longer order schools closed and children will be allowed to continue studying properly?
Distance learning was much better than no learning at all, while it was much worse than normal contact study.
Provided we will be dealing with a similar virus and not a [sufficiently different] mutation, we would have to be very careful about laying down similar restrictions in education.
Would that mean the central government putting its foot down and ordering local governments to keep schools open?
An emergency requires specific orders that apply to everyone.
Planned hospital treatment shouldn't be ended right away?
Yes. It is an important lesson we learned – planned treatment must continue. For example, the North Estonia Medical Center (PERH) continued planned treatment in limited volume, while it was one of only a few hospitals that did.
We also need to consider whether to have COVID-19 wards in all hospitals. Emergency medicine is something else, of course.
One of the principal reasons for closing hospitals in spring was shortage of personal protective gear. Does Estonia now have a sufficient supply of masks, respirators, rubber gloves and protective gowns?
Learning is one of the keywords of this virus. We all learned to do more, to do things better and in different ways.
To answer your question, we also learned a lesson regarding protective gear supply. Estonia needs to have a minimum of two months' supply following the 1+1 rule – every institution needs to have a month's supply, with the state adding another month's worth from national stockpiles.
We do not have two months' supply yet, but we are getting there.
Was it necessary in hindsight to close malls?
Yes, it was. It considerably reduced the number of contacts between people. Estonians worship shopping centers.
Did you feel your colleagues' excitement in laying down restrictions when the crisis began?
(Pauses) What we felt was that public health had to be the number one consideration for any and all measures. We also realized that every new restriction would take a bite out of GDP.
Mr. Ratas, did you feel your colleagues' excitement in laying down restrictions when the crisis began?
There was no such thing. It was necessary and there was uncertainty and information we received from Europe and the world.
The decisions were not made lightly.
Society came to expect new restrictions in mid-March. Did you feel that?
Those expectations were greatly misguided in places. The business sector urged us to shut everything down. And it was clearly felt that if the government is doing the closing, it should pay for damages until the end of the emergency situation. We commissioned a legal analysis and, of course, there will not be such an approach.
But yes, we could see in the streets and based on mobile positioning data how people became more stationary all over the country.
Many still fear COVID-19 and dare not take public transport, for example. How to change that fear into sensible caution that does not get in one's way?
Learning – that is the answer. COVID-19 must not be allowed to put Estonia and the world in the corner, rather, it needs to be put there itself. We must know how to live with the virus until we have a cure or a vaccine.
Estonia stands ready to create a national supply agency to make sure we have all necessary strategic supplies, including personal protective equipment.
The Health Board will be given a bigger budget and staff?
We need a somewhat broader analysis and audit as concerns the board's handling of the COVID-19 period and what came before.
Does this statement include a measure of mistrust?
Everyone could have taken a few extra steps in the crisis. And handled things better.
Does that include the government?
How inevitable are attempts to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis so as not to say hijack it?
Estonia has coalition governments. And I cannot imagine anyone other than the government bearing political responsibility in such a crisis.
However, I must commend the opposition and do it sincerely. There was true unity during the initial weeks of the crisis. Of course, the coalition and the opposition returned to their roles later on.
Your dear coalition partner…
… Minister of the Interior Mart Helme explained, after the passing of the crisis budget, that there was horse-trading in the coalition and his Conservative People's Party (EKRE) got the best deals.
(Pauses) I believe a crisis is not managed using catchy headlines but a lot of hard work and action.
I beg your pardon, but I'm not the one comparing the prime minister to a horse thief. These are two very different vocations.
(Smiles) I agree with you there.
Freezing second pillar pension payments, not allowing foreign workers to bail out agriculture, the diesel fuel excise duty cut and recently hurdles thrown up for foreign students looking to study in Estonia – all of it obviously constitutes making good on election promises instead of solving the coronavirus crisis.
All of these measures are more or less tied to the crisis.
Let us take it step-by-step.
The second pillar was also a crisis measure 12 years ago [the global financial crisis], a fiscal matter first and foremost.
The people who made that decision 12 years ago recommended skipping that step this time as it didn't work.
Of course, because this time they find themselves in the opposition.
The diesel excise duty cut – I've been told by several entrepreneurs that it has helped boost consumption and supported other sectors, while we must keep in mind that people's income falls in a crisis.
Regarding seasonal workers, it has been decided to extend the work permits of foreign workers in agriculture until July 31 that has delivered a measure of relief, while it is not a final solution. Regarding the latter, we need to keep in mind the sector is short some 1,500 people today. We will continue efforts to fix that.
And the government has not yet decided to limit foreign students' access to education.
Estonia is closing.
On the contrary, Estonia has set a good example when it comes to ending restrictions.
Some have called us the mini-Schengen. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania opened their borders to one another on May 15. We allowed commuting to and from Finland from May 15, while tourism has to wait a little longer. But it serves as testament to trust between neighbors. It was my proposal to move ahead as quickly as possible once the epidemiological situation permitted.
Now, as the next step, we will do everything we can tomorrow [May 28] to be able to gradually return to Schengen free movement.
Are you not bothered by the name "mini-Schengen" or Baltic-Schengen" …?
I'm bothered when people call it the "Baltic bubble". That I don't like. It is Baltic cooperation.
"Mini-Schengen" somehow belittles the real Schengen, comes off as an attempt to replace the big one with a smaller alternative.
It is not a matter of replacing anything. Free movement has become so familiar, looking at the past 16 years in the European Union that have been the most successful for Estonia. We realize how important it is when it is taken away. I believe the Schengen area will open quite soon and Estonia remains committed to it.
Does that mean we will have news from Tallinn tomorrow (May 28 – ed.) that just as the German government plans to open Schengen to Germans from June 15, as recommended by the European Commission, so will Estonia?
I'm a positive person and always believe tomorrow will bring good news.
Will there be mandatory testing at the border?
That will depend on the (country of origin's – ed.) infection rate. There should be completely free movement with countries the infection rate of which remains below a certain percentage per 100,000 residents.
What is your opinion of the expression "strawberry revolution"?
(Pauses) What do you mean?
I recently met with strawberry farmers and people from the agricultural sector. Their concerns are serious, it is understandable.
However, we are not talking about salaries of a few hundred euros in the field. Looking at unemployment, I believe a lot of people are looking for so-called seasonal work for the next few months. Salaries strawberry growers talked about could motivate more than a few Estonians. True, it is physically demanding work.
What kind of a salary are we talking about?
A little over the national average.
The causes of this situation are there for everyone to see. If one of your partners explains that Estonia has enough foreign workers to fill the city of Pärnu and that it doesn't want there to be as many as there are people in Tallinn, it is a clear political choice.
A clear political choice is to want to ensure as many jobs as possible for our people in the conditions of growing unemployment.
However, agriculture has needed foreign labor in the past decades and needs it today, whether for harvesting cabbages of strawberries or in dairy farms. Estonia has not altered its foreign labor principles. The opportunities will be there once the crisis ends.
Today, the reason is that the European Union has said borders should not be opened to third country nationals before June 15. That is close to peak time in terms of the strawberry picking season.
Are strawberries one reason a poll by Turu-uuringute AS has Center's rating climbing and that of EKRE falling?
I remember strawberries playing a key role in a Reform Party campaign.
That Center appears to be seeking a compromise, while EKRE is coming off too stubborn.
Politics is the art of compromise.
Do you have certainty that borders will be reopened, seasonal workers allowed into Estonia and the problem will have solved itself by July 31?
(Smiles) I agree and hope to God that our epidemiological situation will allow us to move freely and open borders as soon as possible. I support an open society. I have lived in a closed one – I'm referring to the occupation – and I do not want to spend another second in such a system. I definitely want to live in an open, democratic world complete with free movement of people.
But EKRE will not change.
I believe we all change and learn from our mistakes. So does EKRE.
People who have had contact with the government say that they felt sympathy for restrictions among some ministers, that they took a shine to measures.
I have not noticed it. What I've seen is that restrictions have been strictly based on public health considerations. We are talking about people's lives.
To what extent do you perceive fatigue the crisis and restrictions have caused in society?
It has been a great feat of endurance for Estonians and everyone's families. If only talking about distance learning and what it put teachers through. Their ingenuity in this situation has been extraordinary. I commend them. I also commend people who have been working on Estonia's digital architecture and infrastructure.
Naturally, the people are tired. We have not seen anything like it before and they have been the most difficult moments since Estonia regained its independence. Let us hope spring and summer will allow us to recuperate and… that we will be better prepared should a second wave come.
People are impatient and want their old lives back.
The old life will not return any time soon. Without a vaccine or a cure, there will be certain peculiarities in how we must behave compared to the start of the year.
The government seems to be hesitant when it comes to lifting restrictions. It is said at first that theaters and cinemas can only cater to 50 people at once, while this is immediately followed by an announcement that 50 percent occupancy will be allowed instead. Why is it more difficult to lift restrictions than it is to implement them?
It is like reversing your car – it is always easier to pull into the garage than it is to back out of it.
Don't you have a reversing camera?
(Laughs) I would not trust in that camera too much. One needs to look in the mirror when reversing.
But it is clear that climbing a tree is easier than coming down. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said that coming out of restrictions is much more difficult than going in.
Incidentally, it has also been echoed by the Estonian healthcare system when it comes to returning to planned treatment.
Will Europe be able to negotiate common action, including as concerns border closures, next time?
We will definitely be better at it. We learned a painful lesson in the first days of this crisis. It is abnormal if our citizens get stuck inside the European Union and cannot come home.
On May 18, 2020, France and Germany made a proposal for a €500 billion euro recovery fund to help the European economy find its footing after the coronavirus shock. Is it a step toward closer EU integration?
It is a step toward a stronger EU. It shows how the union has adopted a vigorous position in the crisis.
The Commission added €750 billion to the €1.1 trillion already on the table. These are huge steps to promote economic recovery, while they are also long-term steps. It is important to me that climate and digital development are included as topics therein. It is also very good we are talking about €750 billion not just as loans but also support.
The manner in which the EU has stepped up here is… impressive. A step in the right direction. It shows that Europe has been a project of peace, democracy and the rule of law on the one hand, while it is also demonstrating it is an economic powerhouse today.
Six months ago, we were discussing structural balance rules, and it was the right thing to do. While Europe has come around very quickly in the crisis to try and come out the other side. Which is not to say this kind of life without fiscal rules is now the new norm, definitely not.
Mr. prime minister, do you always say the same thing during government sittings and cabinet meetings?
Does it fall on deaf ears?
How so? Minister of Finance Martin Helme was quite clear in that he does not support Chancellor Merkel and President Macron's plan. While you describe it as a step in the right direction. Where does Estonia stand?
I'm sure you remember there were a lot of debates over climate neutrality, while it was decided that Estonia will support climate neutrality targets.
In other words, just as the Green Deal was supported by the Estonian government in the end, so will the Merkel-Macron plan that has developed into the Commission's recovery fund?
Estonia should participate. Yes, I believe so.
Will there be a vote over those €750 billion in the Riigikogu?
The parliament will be discussing it.
Our parliament has always had its countenance and not its back turned to the EU.
Which means we will see an interesting vote. The Center Party, most of the Reform Party, the Social Democrats and perhaps some Isamaa MPs on the one side and EKRE, a part of Isamaa and a few Reformists on the other?
I deal with actual policy and proceed based on Center, EKRE and Isamaa having agreed in the coalition council to support the European Union as a union of countries, a strong EU. And that is what we will be taking forward.
Klen Jäärats, the Government Office's EU affairs director, recently wrote that EU fundamental freedoms, solidarity and common market are public benefits in Europe and added: "We will either recover from the crisis together, fast in it together lest benefits are put on a diet and grounded." Do you agree?
I believe we will recover from this crisis and it will lend the EU strength. It also matches Estonia's interests.
Will we recover together?
The strength of the EU today is reflected in the number 27. It is stronger than any number below it.
Many southern Europeans see the EU as a stranger who refuses to help them during difficult times. We do not want to find ourselves in the same boat.
No. Our message is – never again alone.
When our partners in Southern Europe asked for NATO assistance, Estonia was among the first countries to support Spain and Italy. They noticed.
Does agreeing to the EU common loan require a referendum as suggested by EKRE MEP Jaak Madison?
I have no legal opinion to suggest the Commission's new offer requires a referendum.
Will you be going to Hundisilma on Sunday?
Former chairman of the Center Party Edgar Savisaar will turn 70. Will it be a big party?
I don't know. A respectable age, and I'm sure it would be nice to see him again after what has been a while.
Editor: Marcus Turovski