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Helme: We are not in the business of apologizing

Minister of Finance Martin Helme next to a cake sent by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
Minister of Finance Martin Helme next to a cake sent by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Source: Arp Müller

Chairman of the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) Martin Helme answered the questions of journalist Arp Müller on Vikerraadio's "Uudis+" program on the upcoming marriage referendum and Mart Helme's (EKRE) comment aimed at sexual minorities from a week ago. Helme sees no reason to apologize to the latter.

What the Center Party gained from the recent agreement between the chairmen of the three coalition partners is that marriage will not be discussed at the same time as local elections in the fall of 2021. Local topics such as roads, schools, kindergarten places and pipes will be discussed instead because the referendum will be held in spring. But what did EKRE gain?

It needs to be said that the referendum's timing, back when we were working on the coalition agreement where it was among the more complicated points, was never a political technological ploy or an ideological priority for us. It simply seemed logical to hold the referendum on what would already be an election day. We decided it should coincide with local elections so as not to have to wait for Riigikogu elections.

I can understand the objection according to which local topics and such a major ideological matter could become muddled and get in each other's way. I think that the date was not such a principled issue for us but rather a practical matter. I do not think it can be seen as a defeat and that it was a good compromise and solution.

But what did EKRE gain?

For us, the most important thing is for the referendum to go ahead. That was what we were concerned about, while we now know the referendum will take place and we are very happy with that.

Let us recall: Center Party, Isamaa and EKRE agreed in the coalition agreement to "hold a referendum as a matter of national issue regarding a proposal to complement the Constitution by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman." Next, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise found in her reply to Archbishop Urmas Viilma that a referendum as phrased in the coalition agreement would be unconstitutional. However, you cannot put up for referendum a constitutional amendment as that would require the votes of 61 MPs that the coalition does not have. The justice chancellor proposed asking the question of whether marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman as a national issue. Do you agree with the justice chancellor's argumentation and support the proposed solution?

I largely agree. Let me start from the beginning. In a situation where the opposition has made a big deal about why we need a referendum in the first place, the justice chancellor answered that question. It puts in place a clear framework for Estonian state agencies and courts, which is very important, in terms of how to treat marriage. And it will not be possible to change that framework without a new referendum. In other words, we will anchor traditional marriage in Estonian legislation. That is what the liberal wing finds so disagreeable.

We are talking about a referendum on a national issue and I agree that attaching a constitutional amendment to it would require 61 votes. We have already agreed in the coalition not to ask whether the people want to amend the Constitution because we will initiate a constitutional amendment in the Riigikogu based on the coalition agreement anyway. In order not to find ourselves in legal deadlock with our 56 or 54 coalition votes. A referendum as a matter of national issue only requires a simple majority. Two in favor and one against would still see the matter pass. Another fun aspect, talking about potential boycott attempts by the other side, is that referendums do not require a working majority in Estonia. The simple majority will prevail irrespective of how many people turn up to vote. But there are a lot legal nuances here and we want to handle them by the book. Estonia last held a referendum in 2004 over whether to join the EU and for the Constitution in 1992. Therefore, a referendum is not exactly a common phenomenon – it needs to be carefully considered and legally immaculate. Our goal is to hold the referendum and get a final answer from the supreme authority in this matter, to put that polarizing matter to bed, and we want to handle it in a way that it could not be challenged in court, for the process not to get bogged down and are willing to do out homework.

What would the referendum question be?

We are moving closer to a final settlement. It can be asked in several different ways. Basically, it will ask whether marriage is valid between a man and a woman in Estonia or whether marriage can only be entered into by a man and a woman. /.../ It seems there is little difference, but if we omit "entered into," court practice could move toward the state treating all men and women who have been married as being married. We need to consider all of these aspects and make a conscious decision. But the nature of the question is what we have in the coalition agreement.

What would it mean if the people said that marriage indeed can be entered into only by a man and a woman? What steps would the Riigikogu be obligated to take or could no longer take after that?

The most important conclusion is the social-political one. I believe it will put to bed the matter of how the state regulates or does not regulate same-sex relationships that has been in the air since the Registered Partnership Act was passed. It is a principled political decision by the people over what we do or do not do regarding this matter. Secondly, after the people answer "yes" to the referendum question, the Registered Partnership Act will be off the agenda for good. I believe that no one will have any realistic levers with which to touch it after that. Thirdly, and this is another aspect where we need political and legal analyses, the question of whether same-sex unions entered into abroad are valid in Estonia will also depend on the phrasing of the question. They might not be after the referendum. There are clear legal consequences, but I regard the political aftermath to be the most important. That we will have put a highly polarizing political matter to bed for at least a decade.

At the same time, both Archbishop Viilma and Pope Francis have recently voiced support for legalizing same-sex civil partnership, which is what the Registered Partnership Act is. Viilma has also said that once marriage has been fixed as a union between a man and a woman on the level of the referendum, he would not be opposed to the Riigikogu passing the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act. You have previously said you do not agree with the archbishop but please elaborate.

As far as I know, Viilma later corrected himself and said he was misunderstood. There have been others who have said that once marriage is protected, we could have same-sex civil partnership because traditional marriage has been defined and put out of harm's way. That is not how I see it. In my view, with the exception of a few nuances, civil partnership and the Registered Partnership Act equate cohabitation to marriage. At least in practical terms, such as inheritance, tax and ownership matters. It would simply be marriage called something else. If the political decision is not to regulate such cohabitation, and I keep hearing how the state should not stick its nose in people's bedrooms or tell people they cannot love someone – that is completely beside the point. Everyone can love who they want and live together in Estonia, but the question here is how the state regulates certain relationships. We have always believed that these relationships do not need state regulation and we definitely do not want to undermine traditional marriage regulation. We see so many unfortunate consequences there. The argument is that if the Registered Partnership Act is really a covert attempt to legalize same-sex marriage, the referendum will cross out such plans.

Do you believe the state should repeal the Registered Partnership Act if people support the referendum's definition of marriage?

It would no longer be valid. It would not move forward through implementing provisions or on the level of courts. I believe that there would be enough political momentum to repeal that highly unfortunate piece of legislation. But even if the Riigikogu will not repeal it, the law will become a meaningless piece of paper.

How do you comment on Pope Francis' stance according to which registering same-sex relationships as civil partnership is a good thing?

Luckily, I am a Lutheran and have not had to listen to the Pope for the past 500 years. I am not bothered. It is also absolutely clear that the Pope's statement clashes with the Holy Bible. Therefore, I do not know how he can rationalize it for himself. But the Lutheran Church and the reformation came about because the church's positions had become so far removed from the holy scriptures that a return to the source was needed. And I still urge the head of the Catholic Church to return to that source today.

Several parties that share many of EKRE's convictions, if only AfD in Germany, have supported allowing civil partnership for homosexual people. True, AfD remains opposed to gay marriage. Head of AfD's Bundestag group Alice Wiedel is in a homosexual relationship herself. Why are Estonia's EU-skeptical national conservatives bothered by giving gay people the right to civil partnership more than your so-called sister parties? Where lies the philosophical difference?

It needs to be said that conservatism is always time- and place-specific. The conservative ideology is largely based on local traditions, local memory. The context in Germany differs from that in Estonia, while the Polish context differs from that of Germany. Estonia's differs from Hungary's and the Czech Republic's. It is clear. It is no secret that societies that lied east of the Iron Curtain have different cultural attitudes regarding both nationality and personal freedoms – more traditional and conservative at heart, I would say. The common ground we have with parties that are in the same group as EKRE in the European Parliament concentrates rather on matters of national sovereignty. However, parties' stances on values vary to a great degree. The answer is that different countries have different traditions.

Should the people say "no" to the referendum question of whether marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman, what should follow from a legal standpoint? Would section 1 of the Family Act according to which "marriage is entered into between a man and a woman" have to be repealed?

Basically, yes. Vox populi, vox dei. There would be nothing left to do if that is what the people said, nor would there be any stopping the liberals then. They would get done everything they have sought: gender-neutral marriages and who knows what else. If I say that a "yes" answer would have clear consequences, its opposite would also hold very serious and radical consequences. Very important things are at stake.

You said in your agreement yesterday (Thursday – ed.) that the coalition is unequivocally opposed to incitement of hatred. We want the campaign to concentrate on fundamental arguments and ideological convictions while avoiding menacing rhetoric and behavior, it reads. What kind of limits will that set for the campaign leading up to the referendum?

For me, the document protects the conservatives. Looking at and listening to [President] Kersti Kaljulaid's comments aimed at conservatives, they are ripe with incitement of hatred. Seeing rainbow activists physically assault people who disagree in the streets, I wish everyone was capable of reasoned debate. I am categorically opposed to the Reform Party's recent so-called hate speech bill as it would protect no one from verbal abuse while legalizing censorship in Estonia. Ideological censorship at that. It is not a problem for me. I believe our party is perfectly capable of participating in that debate using fundamental and ideological argumentation. I see no hindrances here.

Very soon after you signed the said document, EKRE MP Urmas Reitelmann wrote the following in a Facebook post: "'Ringvaade,' hosted by two sodomites, oozed with rage and disappointment over the government remaining, which sentiment was laced with unbridled homosexual propaganda." Could we describe that sentence as hurtful?

It definitely was not incitement of hatred.

Was it insulting?

Depends on one's point of view. I imagine that the targets of the comment felt bad, touched. It is quite likely they did.

Did it clash with the sentence I quoted before and that you gave your signature to support?

We should try to avoid labeling people in such a fashion. That is true.

What about the campaign leading up to the referendum and will the state contribute finances? If so, will resources be allocated for both the "yes" and "no" campaigns as was done with the EU referendum?

There is no such budget appropriation. We have earmarked around €2 million for voting. As we know, we have a number of state-funded tolerance organizations that will be shifting their efforts into overdrive. It is to be feared that efforts to hold the liberal front will also be aided from Europe. We will be contributing party resources to the campaign and we also have a few conservative voluntary sector organizations. But it will not be a fair fight.

What about the state? Will the government be campaigning for either side?

The state will not be campaigning. The state's task is to organize the election and count the votes. Campaigns will be pursued by parties and interest groups. It cannot be the state's task to tell citizens where they must stand.

While we're on the subject of referendums, EKRE have said all along that Estonia should use referendums more often and the coalition agreement also makes mention of that. Have any other referendum questions been on the table?

We have talked about whether we have any other questions we ant to ask. There are two aspects here. One is that [junior coalition partner] Isamaa does not like referendums. They see direct democracy and the parliamentary system as competitors, while I see them as mutually complementary. An ideological difference if you will. Secondly, agreeing on this referendum was difficult enough. We still need to make serious efforts to end up with a final wording. While there are more than a few questions we would ask, what matters is whether we could raise them in the coalition without it turning into a serious mess again.

But you are at least seriously considering it?

I cannot say whether we are seriously considering it. Let's just say it has come up.

I would suggest a few questions. Can a nuclear power plant be constructed in Estonia? Should we ban clearcutitng? Should we stop using oil shale for power generation? All of these matters are quite polarizing for the people. Could they be answered using a referendum the outcome of which would be binding for the Riigikogu and the government?

Philosophically speaking, I am in favor of consulting the people on as many things as possible. These really are polarizing matters. One advantage of a serious referendum is that it sparks a debate in society. This will see different arguments considered and the people become wiser and make a conscious choice. People who can be bothered to learn about different aspects of the forest or nuclear debates and compare arguments and what's at stake, including jobs, power bills, environmental aspects. No topic is black and white. Well, alright, the marriage topic is.

Could forestry be one such question?

Again, and without preferring one option to another, I have no problem with asking the people's opinion on important and polarizing matters. But I'm not sure an agreement could be reached in the coalition, which matter we could take there and whether we want to hold any more referendums as things stand.

Allow me to return to the same-sex partnership topic. Are you, Martin Helme, and your father Mart Helme friendly or unfriendly toward homosexual people, thinking back to the Deutsche Welle interview that sparked this crisis?

I believe, as I said on the ETV talk show, that no one is stopping anyone from loving anyone else in Estonia. Nor do we have any laws that force someone to love someone else. There is no law to prescribe that I need to love someone or be friendly toward them. Friendliness and unfriendliness are not the same as hatred, while hatred is not the same as incitement of anger. There are completely different categories and if we want to have a free country, one must have the option to dislike certain phenomena and the right to express that dislike, instead of walking around with clenched teeth.

That is to say you will stick with the phrase "unfriendly"?

I have not said that. And I find that Mart used it in perfectly clear context. I believe it was all much ado about nothing.

What do you say to those who are expecting EKRE heads to apologize to sexual minorities?

We are not in the business of apologizing.

Permit me another quote: "We will provoke, escalate and improvise. Everyone will be running around and yelling. We will not apologize and the scandal will last for about a week. Once the dust settles, we will have achieved a broader political narrative." Those words belong to you. In other words, the recent agreement between the coalition partners does not mean you are about to pause the strategy I quoted?

By the way, the quote itself is from James Bond. It has worked quite well in politics. I also believe that our party is not the only one that uses this strategy. One needs to be capable of improvisation in politics, and what about escalation? It simply means willingness to go far enough to get what you want in a conflict. However, I believe that rather we are the target of provocations and not the other way around. So, that maxim does not always apply to us, definitely not when seen as our initiative.

However, will you continue with this strategy or will you pause it at least until the marriage referendum based on your agreement with coalition partners?

I do not see where that declaration gets in the way. We are capable of and want a reasoned debate and arguments. I happened to read another piece of fake news on Delfi on how our MP supposedly verbally abused protesters from their car window. This air of provocation and threats, bringing things to the boiling point is clearly coming from the other side of the divide today.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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