Conservative People's Party (EKRE) head, Minister of Finance Martin Helme said on the "Esimene stuudio" political debate show on Wednesday that all coalition parties decided to take a step back and plot a course for restoring credible cooperation.
"Let us say that the three coalition partners looked over the edge into the abyss and decided all to take a step back. Talk of someone stepping down ends there," Helme said.
The host then asked Helme whether we trusts the prime minister again.
"We have managed, talking among ourselves and outside of the media eye, to express concerns that we've had and that have perhaps piled up in the past. Containing the coronavirus crisis and putting together the state budget has been a stressful time. Perhaps these things have piled up and some topics that were previously kept under wraps exploded into the open. That might also be," he said.
"But, yes, we have discussed with the PM what we interpreted as an unwarranted attack by a coalition partner. I believe we now have a better understanding of each other's motives and goals and are on course for restoring reliable cooperation," Helme explained.
The EKRE chairman said that differences were caused by fundamental issues. "It is a matter of constitutional values, a pluralist society, freedom of speech and conscience also for us. These are all major topics and perhaps people do not think of them in the course of their daily political hustle and bustle. However, there are moments where they rise to the surface and need to be discussed. I believe that all of us need to be thankful that Estonia is a free country where no one can be told not to love someone, while no one can be made to love someone either. These are important matters that are in need of discussion."
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said that the partners took a long step forward on Wednesday, while clarity has not been achieved in all matters. Reinsalu did not describe the situation as a government crisis.
"It is clear that the Estonian people and public deserve to have clarity in these matters. Do I diagnose the situation, as the media has done, as a government crisis – no. It is not a government crisis. But it is clear that serious questions are in the air that need to be answered," the foreign minister said.
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) said that what Mart Helme said in his interview (to Deutsche Welle – ed.) in no way differs from where EKRE have stood all along. But he described as a problem for Center the fact that its partner decided to attack the PM and Center over their reaction.
Member of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) Riina Sikkut said that the government should spend its time on serious business, like the state budget, while the coalition is instead forced to clear up mutual umbrage.
Reform Party member Keit-Pentus Rosimannus said that she sees the Center Party as the victim here.
"It is clear they miscalculated when they formed a coalition with such a partner a year and a half ago. We are talking about more than a single interview; it is a very clear package and pattern one part of which is giving hate speech a platform in Estonia. Another part is disconnecting Estonia from our recent allies and leaving us alone. This situation cannot be cleared up with cosmetic changes," she said.
Martin Helme said that everyone has equal opportunities in Estonia.
"It is guaranteed in the Constitution. There can be no question about that. Someone is attributing to us harebrained stances on expulsion or persecution. It is slander. We have never talked about such things. However, there are fundamental questions of values where we do not agree with certain things and we need to have the freedom to express this disagreement," Helme said.
"One thing that has become clear is that we avoided certain topics when we were putting together the coalition. A coalition can happen if there are common elements; we concentrated on that common ground and overlooked other matters. But some topics crop up without warning. We discovered that this gap was greater than we had thought and we need to cope and move forward now," he added.
Opposition believes referendum will not solve a single matter
Riina Sikkut said that the Social Democrats asked the PM to drop the marriage referendum.
"Mart Helme's interview demonstrated what will be the arguments and the level of debate if the marriage referendum the coalition agreement prescribes is taken forward. Putting people in boxes, labels and expulsion. That is why the Social Democrats met with the PM yesterday (Tuesday – ed.) and proposed using the crisis to drop the referendum if the coalition agreement is opened," Sikkut said.
The MP said that Ratas did not give a clear answer.
Keit-Pentus Rosimannus described the marriage referendum as unnecessary as it would not solve a single real problem.
"It will answer the question of whether we need to do something to regulate same-sex cohabitation or not," Martin Helme countered.
The finance minister said that the marriage referendum is of fundamental importance for EKRE. He recalled that EKRE promised to have the Registered Partnership Act repealed, while that promise did not make it to the coalition agreement. The compromise was a constitutional amendment for a public initiative and the marriage referendum in place of the repealing the law.
"It is one of the most important value topics in the coalition agreement. Canceling it simply because it inconveniences someone is not possible. That is not how a coalition works. We are prepared to compromise, we can adjust the wording. We have met with the justice chancellor for that purpose, for it to be as clear as possible and not leave room for misinterpretation. We can even discuss whether it needs to happen on that date or whether it can be moved, considering the fact we are talking about two different electorates. We are willing to discuss all that, while we are not willing to entertain the idea of this item of the coalition agreement no longer being valid," the minister explained.
Tanel Kiik said that the government will have to determine whether the referendum can be held and on what conditions. He said it must be civilized and its goal needs to be clearly defined.
Reinsalu said that different options are on the table regarding the referendum. "We took an interesting step toward a solution today. It turned out that the important thing is to have a functional accord. Agreements that don't really work are madness and shouldn't be entertained. I believe we will manage to reach an agreement. I agree with Tanel Kiik in that we need a framework based on which we can move on with these matters," the foreign minister said.
Helme: A lot of play in economic forecasts
Even though most of the show was spent talking about the health of the coalition, next year's state budget that passed its first reading in the Riigikogu this week as also discussed.
Minister of Finance Martin Helme admitted that the economic forecast next year's budget is currently based on was put together in summer when the [economic] situation was better than it is now. However, there is no need to change the budget bill at this time.
"Not yet. But it is true that the budget is based on the summer economic forecast that gets locked out in August when the situation was far better. However, the August forecast also counted on things getting worse. It includes a lot of reservations. One major reservation is our labor market and economy, while the other is the economy of our largest and closest trade partners. Red lights are flashing there, of course… /---/ We have forecasts we need when putting figures down on paper, but we must never forget that there is a lot of play in them," he explained.
Sikkut said that the state budget and state budget strategy include two major failures.
"On the one hand, we have the health crisis that needs to be addressed now. Tarmo Soomere said in this very studio last week that the lesson of every crisis is that the rich get richer and the poor become poorer still. As a society, we need to make sure the burden of the crisis does not fall on the shoulders of the weak. The government says that masks are not mandatory, while people are urged to stay home as soon as symptoms manifest. And they should, of course, in order to stop the virus from spreading, but a person making minimum salary loses €100 staying home for one week. It is clear they cannot afford to go on sick leave multiple times or every time they get the sniffles during the flu season. /---/ Crisis expenses, sick leave expenses – the budget does not hold enough for containing the crisis. At the same time, we are procuring helicopters etc. while missing the big picture," the MP said.
Tanel Kiik argued and said that the government has prioritized supporting the weaker part of society in the crisis. "Support for the less fortunate part of society has been a clear pattern in the crisis conduct of this government and is also reflected in next year's budget," he said.
Reinsalu emphasized that Isamaa believes the crisis should be exited by spending responsibly. He pointed out that all European countries have used loan money to alleviate the coronavirus economic crisis.
"We have maintained that we need to exit this crisis with a loan burden that is still feasible, looking to the future," the foreign minister said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski