Chairman of the coalition Isamaa party Helir-Valdor Seeder told the "Esimene stuudio" political talk show in an interview that things are tense in the coalition and there is no good feeling of cooperation, while the tone of the dispute has become friendlier and the sides want to move forward.
Let us start with the newest and perhaps most passionate topic. We heard some rather sharp stabs on the Center Party and Conservative People's Party (EKRE) axis again today. There is no solution in sight and we might as well call this thing what it is – a government crisis. How far away is the collapse of Jüri Ratas' government?
It needs to be said that relations are tense in the coalition and there is not enough trust to create a good air of cooperation that a coalition needs. Especially in a situation where the sides have worked together for a long time and where several items of the coalition agreement have been realized, with life bringing new challenges, new situations. Previous agreements and items of the coalition treaty do not help when it comes to the latter, which is why good cooperation and ability to solve these new problems is needed. We have met for talks over the past two days.
What are you discussing behind those closed doors? Are you engaging in text analysis?
No, text analysis is not on the agenda, but we are trying to find solutions. I can say that the tone of the debate has become friendlier. And I feel that all three partners want to find a solution and move on today. Slogans, statements and perhaps categorical messages we've heard cannot bring us nearer to solutions. All sides have understood that.
That is very diplomatic of you to say and something we expected from Helir-Valdor Seeder. Jüri Ratas said on Vikerraadio that this is the most complicated political crisis of his career. In short – how can a conflict where both sides refuse to take a step back be solved?
It can be solved. All coalitions have managed to come out of seemingly hopeless situations. I have quite a few such experiences and this coalition has also had some tough moments. Especially in the course of budget deliberations where tensions have run high. Solutions have been found in the past and will be found this time around. Let us keep calm. I'm sure solutions will be found if we concentrate on searching for them.
Here we sit, two experienced political hounds… Perhaps Ratas grew tired of apologizing after all?
Only Jüri Ratas can answer that. In truth, we should avoid situations where apologies are needed.
There is this expectation in Estonian politics, and I dare say also the media and the general public, for very sharp and robust expression, contradiction that leads to polarization. It sells courtesy of its attractiveness and ability to hold the limelight, while calm, purposeful and perhaps unnoticeable action that I dare say produces results in most cases is overshadowed. Many politicians want to be on the cover, the center of attention, which is what brings us to sharp utterances thrown at each other that in turn culminate in what we have today – generally speaking.
Let us take a turn for the specific – what does it mean when Helir-Valdor Seeder suggests people should not listen to or take seriously what the interior minister says. You cannot mean that?
I do mean it. I said it with the broader context in mind, not just the words that caused this crisis, but rather all statements the sole aim of which is to attract attention.
The heads of EKRE have a Sunday talk show. I'm sure journalists line up, hoping for material from which to shape the main topics of Estonian politics for the next few days. I believe that such treatments and attention do not constitute the most sensible approach, looking at the situation in Estonian politics. There are so many things that really matter to the Estonian people and this Sunday talk show is definitely not the most important source for material.
However, we are not talking about Tre Radio, we are talking about the Deutsche Welle.
Yes, but I mentioned broader context. Do not interpret this as an attack on the media, but simply as an example. I'm talking about the Õhtuleht editorial where Mart Helme's words to Deutsche Welle are projected onto Helir-Valdor Seeder where it reads that Seeder doesn't care who he shares a government with, even if they are a traitor; that it is of no concern to him.
What is that if not pouring fuel on the flames. I believe that neither politicians nor journalists should amplify such statements. We should all have enough professional ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While this media criticism section is undoubtedly enjoyable, let us get a few things straight as it has been a long time since Helir-Valdor Seeder gave a longer interview. What is your opinion of Mart Helme's interview to Deutsche Welle? Is it behavior befitting the interior minister?
I have commented on it and said what I think – that naturally it was not appropriate and a high-ranking politician needs to choose their words very carefully. I would definitely not have done it.
However, let me emphasize once more that there is no policy behind it. The way these words have been amplified to suggest concern for the human rights situation in Estonia, that people are being persecuted and expelled – none of it is true and spreading such horror stories and amplifying certain ideas is in no way justified.
The analysis perhaps concentrates too much on the "to Sweden" vs "in Sweden" aspect, while Helme also said the word "unfriendly" in the interview. Is it okay to be unfriendly toward a group in society in 2020?
Like I said – I would not have said it, nor do I consider it right, but there is no real policy behind it. The government is executing policy that is in accordance with the Estonian Constitution and aimed at the country's development. All of these fears and attempts to blow things out of proportion should not be fueled by politicians, including the opposition – even though I realize that it is the opposition's job to contrast to the coalition and amplify such aspects – however, society in general should not go along with it. The independent press should remain independent.
Precisely because the independent press is independent, it will continue asking these questions.
It should also sport a high quality.
Absolutely, and I'm sure neither of us doubts the other's quality. I understand that Isamaa wants to keep the coalition together, it is understandable, but we are hearing also from your supporters that there is only so much wiggle room here and that in the end, it boils down to whether the interview attacked constitutional values, as suggested by Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center), or whether Center stabbed EKRE in the back. Where does Isamaa stand?
No, we do not need to pick sides here. Like I said, it would have been better had that utterance not happened, but I feel there is no constitutional threat in the Republic of Estonia.
Allow me a somewhat broader question on this topic. [EKRE chairman] Martin Helme says that the national conservatives oppose the homosexual agenda. Have you understood what that homosexual agenda is in Estonia and who is trying to introduce it?
I'd wager you will have Martin Helme on the show tomorrow and you can ask him directly. I will definitely not interpret his words here or comment on his ideas. You will get the chance tomorrow.
However, he is right in that Mart Helme said nothing more than what the party has been saying weekly for the past eight years.
That is the sum of it. People for whom Mart Helme's words were news have not been paying attention to where EKRE stand. Their ideology and positions are known, so there was nothing new in those terms.
One of EKRE's main concerns and fears is that the marriage referendum will be canceled. Will this item of the coalition agreement be revisited?
We have agreed on the level of the coalition agreement that there will be a referendum concerning the concept of marriage. It is true that since the agreement's signing, we have learned that holding a referendum as such would probably not be sensible as there might be conflicts with the Constitution, as pointed out by the justice chancellor. Therefore, we have returned to that item and deliberations are underway in the coalition. Deliberations over how the question should be phrased and whether it would be sensible to consult the people concerning a constitutional amendment or whether the question should be asked as a miscellaneous national issue, as well as when it could take place – these matters are open for discussion presently.
I believe we can agree on these matters and find a solution in the coming weeks.
Isamaa's Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) group is urging the party to say, and I quote: "The referendum will not be held in the atmosphere of hatred created by the Helmes." What say you to your fellow party members?
We agreed on the concept of marriage and that it needs constitutional protection during our 2018 core values debate. Therefore, this topic is a core value for the party. It was also Isamaa's initiative to have the idea included in the Constitution, which proposal Isamaa made to other parliament parties in 2016. That is to say the initiative has come from Isamaa and constitutes one of our core values we do not need to be ashamed of in the least.
True, we thought it could be handled in parliamentary procedure. If today, the coalition has agreed that it will happen in the form of a referendum, I do not see it as the tragedy it has perhaps been made out to be and dare say potential fears have been blown out of proportion. However, like I said, the coalition is discussing this matter and we would like to see it handled in a cultured fashion, for it to be accurately phrased based on the best political practice of the day.
By the way, have you received a call from [opposition Reform Party chair] Kaja Kallas in recent days and asked about Isamaa's plans for the future?
I have indeed. She called me today to congratulate me on the Supreme Court's pension reform decision and we talked briefly about the ruling and the reform itself. That was the sum of it. But as concerns potential alternative coalitions or talks, I have discussed nothing of the sort with Kaja Kallas or any other party chairman for that matter.
Kristen Michal suggested it on Vikerraadio today. Perhaps he will call you after the show. Should people take seriously rumors according to which this meeting that you have not had has taken place between Center and Reform?
I suggest people pay little mind to it as my gut feeling tells me that no coalition partner, neither EKRE nor Center, is holding parallel talks despite having expressed willingness to move to the opposition or consider an alternative coalition. Such statements are a part of negotiating tactics to some extent.
Moving on to the next topic, while also circling back – are you a bit cross with your coalition partners for kind of stealing the day when your life's work came to fruition?
I am not. Umbrage or resentment never help solve a problem, so I take things as they are. And everything that is real is normal.
Will you be opening a bottle of champagne tonight?
No, definitely not tonight. I will go by Toompea Hill after the show from where I will head for my apartment. There will be no partying today.
And a lot of work still needs to be done on the pension reform. Actually implementing it will require quite a lot of energy. We need state agencies and financial institutions to be ready. Everything needs to go smoothly as we have organizational adjustments, IT systems developments to see to.
Very little time is left until the entry into force of the law – it should come into effect from January 1 next year, so we are in a hurry to implement it. I very much hope that state and financial institutions did not sit idle for the duration of the Supreme Court's deliberation and were making preparations and that we will be able to launch the reform next year.
What I meant was that this is perhaps the biggest thing in Helir-Valdor Seeder's career. Even seeing as the opposition refers to it as dismantling, I'm sure you felt something today?
Of course, I was glad that work done over several years and that I started on my own has culminated in this result. But life has taught me that if you are sure of yourself, that you are doing the right thing and try to convince nearby people, you will find allies and achieve your goal and that it does not have to happen on the barricades and by way of sharp remarks.
I'm also glad because both I and Isamaa have taken an incredible beating over this issue over the years – from financial institutions, from experts and the media. And in the end, we also needed to wrangle with the justice chancellor and the president.
Of course, after such an arduous journey, I'm glad it has come into effect and we have received a lot of positive feedback.
Are you angry with the president?
No, far from it. Everyone has their role to play and I hope that they are performing their tasks in good faith and based on their convictions. I believe it is first and foremost a positive message for Estonians who have longed to have this choice, freedom to decide their own future and financial assets.
Not to rain on your parade, but the Supreme Court did not assess the benefits of the law. A good law can be unconstitutional and a bad one constitutional. The what is right versus what is just debate.
Indeed, and it is not in the Supreme Court's capacity to evaluate its benefits. However, looking at European practice and the situation in other countries, courts are increasingly shaping policy through their decisions and precedents and are hearing more and more matters that are also political as well as legal. It is very difficult to separate the two.
So it is with the pension reform and it was definitely also a political decision. But the decision has been made now and it is constitutional. And I can assure you it is also a good law.
Let us turn up the heat. [Opposition Reform Party MP] Jürgen Ligi says: "The Constitution does not prohibit the government from being foolish or inconsiderate." Eiki Nestor adds: "You are basically buying votes with voters' own money." How would you respond?
This record has been spinning for years and I understand the frustration of Ligi and Nestor. Eiki Nestor was one of the initiators of the [mandatory funded pensions] law back in the day, while Ligi has been a strong supporter. There is no way he could do an about-turn here. They will keep that record spinning.
Let's just say that it is wrong to wave fists around after the fight is over. Now, we need to concentrate on how to best implement the reform. These epithets and continuing this debate is no longer sensible.
To continue on a more practical note, SEB says today that it is not a competition of who can send in their application for withdrawing pension assets the fastest come January 1. What do you recommend people do from a practical aspect – to continue saving or withdraw sums?
I will not provide a universal recommendation. Everyone must act based on their situation, their economic means, their knowledge and plans. And these are truly individual. Those who wish can do nothing and continue saving as they have. It is also possible to stop saving in the second pillar with the assets retained in a way that money will in the future go into the person's state pension. Those who want to and feel they have the skills can invest their money themselves using investment accounts. And people can also withdraw the money, invest in enterprise, real estate, health and education.
All these possibilities exist, while they are different for people, which allows for the most effective solution. It is surely more effective than the current mandatory second pillar that has been highly unproductive for the past 20 years. Everyone will have to make their own decision that comes with greater individual responsibility.
Supreme Court justices found the reform constitutional with votes 12-7. Did that come as a surprise? I feel people were expecting a closer finish.
It was not a sporting event and I'm sure the Supreme Court discussed it very thoroughly. Perhaps the 12-7 result does not accurately reflect these tense debates.
What I would say is that it took many by surprise because people were ready for some clauses to be deemed unconstitutional. I also considered the possibility of the Supreme Court finding that certain items should be reviewed.
We had a plan B to amend the law and pass it in accordance with the Supreme Court's decision. But these are all ifs and speculations today. We know the result and no longer need to think about these aspects.
I would recommend reading the Supreme Court's decision in full because there are problems, while not all infringement is unconstitutional. The main question, seeing as we had no time or wished to retell the entire pension tale today, is how to ensure a dignified old age in a way that would not have our children paying through the nose?
There are many ways to do that, while children themselves are the most important – a country's demographic situation, workers and people who create value for the future. That is what matters most. That is how a society ensures its viability. It is natural law and economic law that no society can rebel against because there simply aren't any alternatives.
What would you say to Jüri [Ratas] and Martin [Helme] today? That you hope to see white smoke tomorrow?
Yes, I remain hopeful. The people around that table have enough experience and if the desire is to move on together, trust needs to be restored. We have enough things that have not been achieved in the coalition agreement and enough new plans to realize together for the benefit of Estonia's development.
Editor: Marcus Turovski